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Can a Plant Based Diet Lower Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer?

By Nicole Sell  •   April 3, 2023
•    Medically Reviewed By Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - Mar 23, 2023

Photo Credit: by Ayo Olaseinde, Flickr.com
Photo Credit: by Ayo Olaseinde, Flickr.com

Have you ever thought about how the food on your plate affects your health and well-being? If so, you may have considered exploring plant-based diets for their many touted health benefits. But did you know that following a plant based diet could help lower your risk of colorectal cancer?

In this article, we'll uncover why eating plant based could be one of the best strategies for preventing colorectal cancer.

Latest Data on Colorectal Cancer from 2022

Imagine hearing the two words no one ever wants to hear: "you have cancer." Now imagine if those words were followed by an even more startling realization - that you likely could have prevented it. That's right, colorectal cancer - the third most commonly diagnosed and second leading cause of cancer deaths worldwide - is largely preventable, yet far too many people are still falling prey to it.

The current data on colorectal cancer is alarmingly clear. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 140,000 Americans are diagnosed with colorectal cancer each year, and 50,000 people die from it annually. That means that there are currently around one million people living with colorectal cancer in the United States alone.

The good news, however, is that lifestyle modifications such as quitting smoking and increasing physical activity have been proven to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer by up to 70%. And one of the most promising preventive measures for reducing colorectal cancer risk is eating a plant based diet.

How Can a Plant Based Diet Lower Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer?

Are you eating yourself to a deadly disease? If your diet is heavy in red and processed meat, added sugar, and fat, then the answer may be yes. One of the most important things we can do to reduce our risk for colorectal cancer is to make healthy choices when it comes to our diet. While there are various dietary approaches one could take, research has found that following a plant based diet has the greatest potential to reduce one's risk of colorectal cancer.

Meats, including beef, pork, and lamb, contain carcinogenic compounds such as heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). These molecules form when meats are cooked at high temperatures and can damage cells in the colon. Processed meat, like bacon and hot dogs are especially dangerous due to their high fat and sodium nitrite levels.

In contrast to animal products, plant-based diets are full of healing compounds that fight cancer on a cellular level. Foods such as cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds provide ample amounts of antioxidants that can help neutralize free radicals in the body.

Eating a plant diet can also lower your risk of colorectal cancer because it eliminates trans fats from processed foods and encourages you to consume more fiber-rich foods. High-fiber diets have been linked to a decreased risk of colon cancer.

Finally, reducing your intake of animal-based foods can help with weight management. Being overweight or obese raises your risk of colorectal cancer and other diseases. While many people find it hard to go vegan unless they closely monitor protein and vitamin b12 intake and supplementation, foods containing predominantly plant based options have consistently been shown to be beneficial. A diet such as the Mediterranean diet can significantly lower your colon cancer risk as evidenced by its remarkable statistics. While the mediterranean diet incorporates some dairy (mainly in the form of probiotic rich dairy such as yogurt and kefir, it also allows animal protein but minimal amounts–no more than 1-2 times per week. Diets that are mostly plant based foods such as the mediterranean diet have been shown to have the most impact on all cause mortality–by as much as a 50 % reduction. This is more than any medication studied which is amazing to think that a diet can have such a significant impact on the health of a person.

What is a Plant-based Diet?

A vegan diet excludes all animal products, meaning no meat, milk, cheese, eggs, or other animal-derived ingredients. A plant-based diet including fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, and whole grains, with minimal amounts of dairy and animal protein.

Benefits of a Plant Based Diet for Colorectal Cancer Risk

Studies have suggested that a vegan diet may be associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer. This is due to several factors

Plant Based Diets Are Higher in Fiber

Many who eat a predominantly plant based diet know that their diet is higher in fiber than an omnivorous diet, but they might not know the extent to which increasing dietary fiber can improve their colorectal health. Eating foods that are high in dietary fiber helps keep colorectal cancer at bay by moving material through your intestines faster, so carcinogens have less time to damage the colorectal cells.

In addition, fiber encourages beneficial bacteria proliferation in the gut and is linked with many other protective metabolic processes associated with improved colorectal health. A plant-based vegan diet is especially rich in nutrient-dense whole grain fibers, providing your body with huge amounts of protection while lowering colorectal cancer risk.

Plant Based Are Lower in Saturated Fat

Plant based diets are naturally lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats.

Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature and are found in animal products such as meat, dairy, and eggs, as well as in some plant-based oils such as palm oil and coconut oil. Saturated fats can raise cholesterol levels in the blood when eaten in excess, leading to an increased risk of colorectal cancer.

In contrast, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, found in plant-based sources such as nuts and seeds, are thought to protect against colorectal cancer.

Plant Based Diets May Be Lower in Heterocyclic Amines

Heterocyclic amines (HCAs) are chemical compounds created when animal proteins, such as those found in beef or fish, are cooked at high temperatures. These compounds have been classified as carcinogenic, and research has identified colorectal cancer as one of the illnesses linked to HCA consumption. A vegan diet eliminates animal proteins and their associated HCAs, reducing the risk of colorectal cancer.

Plant Based Diets Are Rich in Nutrients

Studies have shown that those who eat plant-based diets tend to consume higher levels of key vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals than individuals who regularly consume animal products. Some of the beneficial compounds found in a plant based diet include:

Vitamin C: Vitamin C has long been known to be an essential nutrient for our bodies, with numerous articles touting its importance for building immunity and revitalizing energy. Recent studies have suggested that consuming foods high in vitamin C may also help prevent colorectal cancer. The anti-inflammatory properties of the vitamin make it beneficial in this regard, helping to reduce potential damage from colorectal carcinogens. Vitamin C can be found in many fruits and vegetables, though some citrus fruits are particularly rich sources.

Lycopene: Lycopene is a powerful antioxidant found in tomatoes and other fruits that has been widely studied for its potential health benefits. It is believed to be useful for fighting colorectal cancer. Studies show that people who eat high amounts of lycopene have a lower risk of colorectal cancer than those who do not consume the same amount. There are several ways to increase your intake of lycopene, including eating more tomatoes and other sources such as carrots, watermelons, pink grapefruit, papaya, boiled beefsteak plantains, mangoes, and guava.

Vitamin E: Vitamin E plays an important role in colorectal health, and studies have shown that increasing Vitamin E intake could reduce colorectal cancer risk. Recent research from the National Institutes of Health found that regular consumption of Vitamin E was associated with a decreased risk for colorectal adenomatous polyps—gastrointestinal growths which are often precursors to colorectal cancers. This same study suggested that people who took a multivitamin and mineral supplement containing Vitamin E had a 31% lower risk than those who didn't consume Vitamin E as part of their supplementation regimen. Adding more Vitamin E-rich foods such as almonds, spinach, sunflower oil, wheat germ, and other sources to your diet regularly is an easy way to help reduce colorectal cancer risk.

Folate: Folate is an essential micronutrient that helps to build DNA and create new cells. Studies have shown that increasing dietary folate intake can lower the risk of colorectal cancer and other diseases, including obesity, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. People who want to reduce their colorectal cancer risk should ensure they get enough folate by consuming foods like leafy green vegetables, citrus fruits, and legumes. Supplements can also be a great way to improve folate levels; vitamins and fortified cereals often contain a good amount of this vitamin.

Beta carotene: Beta carotene is an essential antioxidant found in many bright-colored fruits and vegetables. Often associated with the pigment that gives certain foods their vibrant yellow and orange color, it deterministically helps reduce colorectal cancer risk. Many of the foods with the highest levels of beta carotene are sweet potatoes, carrots, and leafy greens; by adding these to your regular diet, you can easily up your intake of this key nutrient.

Selenium: Selenium is an essential mineral found in trace amounts in the human body that has been found to have numerous health benefits. First and foremost, it can significantly reduce colorectal cancer risk due to its unique ability to regulate cell growth and replication. Not only this, selenium also helps protect cells from damage and has a role in the body's immune system. It's an important part of any healthy diet; foods like Brazil nuts, oats, sunflower seeds, mushrooms, and wheat germ are all excellent sources of selenium.

Treatments for Colorectal Cancer

There are a number of treatments currently available for colorectal cancer, including surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and targeted therapy. In some cases, a combination of these treatments may be used to achieve the best possible outcome.

Surgical Options

In treating colorectal cancer, the primary goal is to remove or destroy affected tissue before it spreads to other parts of the body. Depending on the stage of cancer and its location, surgical options may range from simple removal of polyps to a complete colectomy (partial or total removal of the colon).

Prescription Medications

Prescription medications are a common treatment for colorectal cancer, and the medicines often prescribed depend on the severity of the disease and the needs of each individual patient.

Generally, medications used to treat colorectal cancer fall into two categories: chemotherapy drugs, such as Xeloda, which targets rapidly within cells to stop their growth, and targeted therapy medications, such as Afinitor, designed to fight against specific proteins or genes that help tumor cells metastasize. Often these types of drugs are combined to strengthen their effects.

Many patients need additional medications to manage any side effects from their treatments. While there is no guaranteed cure for colorectal cancer, prescription medications can significantly slow down the progression of the disease and make it more manageable for those affected.

Remember to talk to your doctor before taking any medicines, as they are the best source of information for managing colorectal cancer.

Other Treatments

In more advanced cases of colorectal cancer, targeted therapies such as immunotherapy and the latest treatments like gene therapy can effectively battle the disease. For example, genetic therapies may be used to create custom-made treatments that target specific forms of colorectal cancers with precision and accuracy. Immunotherapy is another promising field exploring how vaccines and stimulating the body’s defenses can inhibit tumor growth. Most importantly, these treatments often aid in lessening or eliminating side effects from traditional colorectal cancer treatment methods.

Other Ways to Prevent Colorectal Cancer

In addition to eating a healthy diet, there are some other steps people can take to reduce their risk of colorectal cancer:

Get Screened for Colorectal Cancer

One of the most important steps is getting regular colorectal cancer screening tests. Colonoscopies and sigmoidoscopies are effective tools that can detect colorectal cancer at an early stage before it has had time to spread. By taking preventive steps like getting tested, you can help ensure that colorectal cancer is detected in its most treatable stages.

Exercise Regularly

Exercise is an essential part of preventive health care, particularly when it comes to reducing the risk of cancer. Recent research has shown that regular exercise can decrease the likelihood of someone developing colorectal cancer by up to 25%. Studies suggest that even moderate physical activity - such as walking or gardening - can be beneficial in reducing one's risk.

Maintain a Healthy Weight

Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing colorectal cancer. Research has shown that people who are of a healthy weight tend to have lower levels of inflammation in the body. This helps reduce the risk of cancer-causing mutations in our cells.

Limit Your Alcohol Intake

Heavy alcohol consumption has been linked to an increased risk of developing several types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. Studies suggest that limiting your intake to one or two drinks per day can reduce your overall risk.

Reduce Stress Levels

Chronic stress is known to weaken the immune system and increase inflammation in the body - two factors that can increase the risk of developing colorectal cancer. Making sure to take time for self-care and relaxation is important in reducing stress levels and managing your overall health.

Quit Smoking

Smoking tobacco is a major risk factor for several types of cancer, including colorectal cancer. Quitting smoking is one of the most important steps you can take to reduce your risk.

The Bottom Line

Although a plant based diet cannot guarantee protection against colorectal cancer, it can provide significant benefits in reducing the risk factors associated with this malignancy. In addition to eating a balanced diet, other lifestyle modifications such as exercising regularly, maintaining a healthy weight, limiting alcohol intake, reducing stress levels, and quitting smoking can also help lower your risk. By taking these steps, you can help ensure that colorectal cancer is detected in its most treatable stages. Ultimately, the best way to prevent colorectal cancer is by taking an active role in your health and ensuring regular screenings. With the right lifestyle changes, you can reduce your risk of colorectal cancer and live a longer, healthier life.



The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician's consultation and it should not indicate that use of the drug is safe and suitable for you or your (pet). Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.