How to lower your risk of colon cancer

Colon cancer is the third most commonly diagnosed cancer in both men and women in the United States. It is also one of the leading causes of cancer deaths each year.  The colon makes up most of your large intestine and is part of your digestive system. In the colon, salt and water get absorbed from food you eat in one of the final steps of digestion, before the remaining undigestible matter gets excreted from your body. Colon cancer usually begins with growths – called polyps – which form within the colon. These growths may become cancerous and, over time, can spread throughout the colon and into other areas of the body.

Although there is no surefire way to prevent colon cancer, there are steps you can take to lower your risk:

Get screened regularly.  Regular screening for colon cancer is critical in order to find and remove polyps before they become cancerous. In general, it is recommended that all adults get screened annually, beginning at age 45. Speak with your doctor for more details on the type and frequency of screening that is right for you.

Stay within a healthy weight.  Being overweight or obese is a major risk factor for colon cancer, particularly if you carry excess weight around the midsection or belly.  If you need to lose weight, keep these quick tips in mind: don’t drink your calories; eat slowly; and pay close attention to hunger cues. Eat only when you are truly hungry and stop when you feel full.

Avoid red or processed meats. High intake of beef, pork and lamb is linked with increased rates of colon cancer. The same is true for processed meats, such as deli meat, bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham and others.  Keep these foods as occasional treats and choose poultry, seafood, legumes and nuts for your daily protein needs.

Eat more fiber. The bacteria in your gut houses 80 percent of your immune system and, therefore, plays an important role in immune function, inflammation and metabolism. A healthy balance of gut bacteria has been linked with a decreased risk of colon and other cancers. Studies show that not only does eating a high-fiber diet lead to a favorable balance of “good” bacteria in your gut, but it is also associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer. Aim for 25-30 grams of fiber per day by eating vegetables, fruits, oatmeal, legumes, nuts, whole-wheat pasta, brown rice, whole grain bread and other grains.

Add color to your plate. A diet rich in fruits and vegetables can reduce the risk of colon cancer. Plus, the phytochemicals found in these foods not only give them their vibrant colors, but they also act as cancer-fighting antioxidants in the body. Lycopene—found in tomatoes, watermelon and mangoes—is a great example. Eat a rainbow of different colored fruits and vegetables every day to make sure you’re getting as many different antioxidants as possible.

Move your body.  Physical inactivity is another risk factor for colon cancer, so be sure to move your body as much as possible every day. Take the stairs, park further from your destination, go for a walk, find a fun fitness class, or throw a dance party with your kids or grandkids. Have fun and make daily movement a habit.

Avoid smoking and drinking alcohol. Both smoking and high alcohol intake are linked with an increased risk of colon cancer (and other diseases). It’s best to quit smoking altogether and limit your consumption of alcohol to no more than one drink a day for women and two drinks per day for men.

All of these recommendations can help lower your risk factors for colon cancer. As an extra bonus, nearly all of them can also reduce your risk of other cancers and major diseases. That’s a win-win for your health!


Ann Caldwell and Maureen Shackelford are nutritionists and registered dietitians at Anne Arundel Medical Center. To reach them, call 443-481-5555.

Originally published March 4, 2019. Last updated March 2, 2020.