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Nutrition Recommendations to Prevent Colorectal Cancer

Colorectal cancer is a type of cancer that starts in the colon or the rectum, parts of the large intestine in our digestive system. The colon absorbs water and electrolytes from undigested food, and the remaining waste matter passes into the rectum, the final 6 inches of the digestive system.1

Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in the United States and is expected to cause approximately 50,000 deaths in 2018. The death rate from colorectal cancer has dropped over the past few decades due to improved screening and treatment methods, with over 1 million colorectal cancer survivors currently living in the U.S.2

In 2017, The World Cancer Research Fund, in partnership with the American Institute for Cancer Research, released a Continuous Update Project on colorectal cancer that uses the most recent scientific research from around the world to update the knowledge base and recommendations to prevent this type of cancer.3 The recommendations to decrease risk of colorectal cancer based on strong scientific evidence include:

  1. Being physically active, which helps decrease inflammation, insulin resistance, and obesity which are strongly associated with increased risk of colorectal cancer.3 A minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous intensity exercise is recommended. Moderate intensity exercise includes activities such as brisk walking, golfing, dancing, doubles tennis, and general yard work. Vigorous intensity exercise includes activities such as running, fast bicycling, aerobic exercise classes, cross-country skiing, soccer and basketball. Including some type of exercise into your daily routine is strongly encouraged for the most comprehensive benefits as opposed to exercising only once or twice per week.4
  2. In addition to including some type of daily physical activity, limiting time spent sitting is also important.4 Taking 1-2 minute standing, stretching or walking break every 30 minutes helps decrease the amount of time spent sitting.
  3. Including whole grains, which are an excellent source of fiber, vitamin E, selenium, copper, zinc, lignans, phytoestrogens and phenolic compounds that have anti-cancer properties.3 Whole grains include all three parts of the grain:  the multilayered outer skin called the bran, the germ, and the endosperm. Refined grains are processed to remove the bran and germ, which results in removing approximately two-thirds of the nutrients and almost all of the fiber found in the whole grain.5
  4. Choose fat-free milk and yogurt which are good sources of calcium that plays a role in preventing colorectal cancer. Yogurt with active, live probiotic cultures may also help protect against colorectal cancer by improving the bacteria in the large intestine.3
  5. Decrease the amount of red meat from beef, pork, lamb and goat consumed and instead choose more seafood and chicken.3
  6. Eliminate processed meats which include smoked, cured, and salted meats such as sausage, bacon, and many types of lunch meat. These types of meats are high in saturated fat and heme iron which may promote the creation of cancer tumors.3
  7. Limit alcohol to no more than 1 drink per day for women and no more than 2 drinks per day for men. Alcohol increases oxidative stress and is known to promote the development of cancer cells in the colon.3 One alcoholic drink is defined as 12 ounces of beer, 8 ounces of malt liquor, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits such as gin, vodka, rum and whiskey. This amount is not an average for the week, but rather the upper limit consumed on any individual day.6
  8. Being overweight is associated with increased production of insulin, which promotes cell growth that is a risk factor for developing cancer. Increased risk of colorectal cancer is seen with body mass index above 27.3 BMI is based on height and weight, and not on sex. For someone 5’5” tall, a BMI over 27 is weighing >162 pounds, and for someone 5’10”, a BMI over 27 is weighing >188 pounds.7


  1. American Cancer Society. What is Colorectal Cancer? https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/what-is-colorectal-cancer.html  last updated 4-6-17. Accessed 2-10-18
  2. American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Colorectal Cancer. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/colon-rectal-cancer/about/key-statistics.html    last updated 1-4-18. Accessed 2-10-18
  3. World Cancer Research Fund International/American Institute for Cancer Research. Continuous Update Project Report:  Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Colorectal Cancer. 2017. www.aicr.org/continuous-update-project/reports/colorectal-cancer-2017-report.pdf  Accessed 2-10-18
  4. American Cancer Society. ACS Guidelines for Nutrition and Physical Activity. https://www.cancer.org/healthy/eat-healthy-get-active/acs-guidelines-nutrition-physical-activity-cancer-prevention/guidelines.html   last updated 4-13-17. Accessed 2-10-18
  5. Oldways Whole Grains Council. Whole Grains 101. A Refined Grain? What’s a Processed Grain? https://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/whats-whole-grain-refined-grain accessed 2-10-18
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alcohol and Public Health. Fact Sheets - Moderate Drinking. https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm  last updated 7-25-17. Accessed 2-10-18

National Health, Lung, Blood Institute. Body Max Index Table. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmi_tbl.pdf  accessed 2-10-18

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