Living a healthy lifestyle—which includes exercising regularly, eating a nutritious diet, and getting enough sleep—is the cornerstone of good health. Living healthfully not only helps with weight maintenance, mood, and energy, but it can also lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer.
Colon cancer, in particular, is strongly linked to lifestyle habits—more so than other cancer forms, according to the American Cancer Society. It’s also the third most common type of cancer in both men and women.
Colon cancer, also called colorectal cancer, is a cancer that starts in the colon or the rectum (sometimes called rectal cancer). Colon cancer often develops from a polyp, which is a small growth that forms on the inner lining of organs. Some polyps are benign, but some can become cancerous over time. (Learn more about colorectal cancer here.)
While there are some colon cancer risk factors you can’t control like your family history, ethnic background, or age (it’s more common in people over 50, although young folks can get it to), there are many lifestyle factors you can change.
1. Eat less red and processed meats
Eating red meat (beef, lamb, pork) or processed meat (any meat which has been modified to improve its taste or to extend its shelf life, including hot dogs, sausages, and luncheon meats) regularly can significantly increase your risk for colon cancer.
According to an analysis of 21 studies published in the journal Current Colorectal Cancer Reports, every 100 grams of red meat eaten daily increases a person’s risk of colon cancer a whopping 14 percent. To put that into perspective, 100 grams of meat is 3.5 ounces—that’s just a single serving about the size of your palm. According to the analysis, the average American consumes about 128 grams of red meat per day.
With processed meat, the numbers are even more staggering: Just 50 grams of processed meat (that’s about one hot dog) can increase a person’s risk by 18 percent, according to a review of more than 800 studies on the topic.
2. Eat more high-fiber foods
There are many health benefits of a high-fiber diet, and just one of them is its ability to cut down your risk for colon cancer. Fibrous foods include fruits, veggies, legumes, and whole grains.
Fiber helps keep your digestive system healthy in a lot of ways: It keeps you regular and slows down digestion. This, along with the anti-inflammatory properties of these healthy eats, may contribute to a healthy, anti-colon cancer environment in your digestive tract.
3. Get moving
Regular exercise not only helps you maintain a healthy weight, but it can also significantly reduce your risk of colon cancer. People who are physically active have a 24 percent lower risk of developing colon cancer.
Exercise improves overall body functioning, and can help reduce chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation can result in DNA damage, which can lead to certain types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute. (Learn more about how to reduce inflammation in the body.)
Any movement is good for your body, but for optimal health, aim for 30 minutes of activity a day, five days a week.
4. Watch your weight
According to the American Cancer Society, being overweight or obese increases the risk of colon cancer in both men and women, but the link seems to be stronger in men. What’s more, if you tend to carry weight around your middle, your risk is even higher. (Learn more about how excess belly fat affects your health.)
Fat tissue releases certain substances in the body that may contribute to the development of certain types of cancer. People who are overweight or obese also have a higher risk of many health conditions, including chronic inflammation, high cholesterol, and insulin resistance—all of which may increase your risk of not only cancer, but other conditions too, such as heart disease.
Eating more whole, nutritious foods and keeping physically active can help you control your weight. If you need help losing weight, talk to your doctor.
5. Don’t smoke
Smoking can increase your risk of many types of cancer, including colon cancer, according to the American Cancer Society. Tobacco smoke contains cancer-causing chemicals. These substances undergo a process in the body which can lead to changes in DNA and gene mutations.
Kicking the smoking habit can help you ward off many diseases and cancers. If you need help quitting, check out these smoking cessation strategies.
6. Limit alcohol
Several studies have found a higher risk of colorectal cancer with increased alcohol intake, especially among men.
Drinking too much can damage cells and body tissues, and may trigger cancer-causing biological changes in the body. What’s more, long-term excessive alcohol consumption can also affect how well your body absorbs certain B vitamins, which are essential for keeping your cells healthy. (Learn more about the 13 essential vitamins and how they keep you healthy.)
Aim for no more than one drink a day for women, and two for men.
7. Get screened
Screenings look for growths (polyps) on the colon or rectum. If polyps are found, doctors can remove them before they have the chance to become cancerous. Polyps are benign growths at first, but they grow gradually over 10 to 20 years and can eventually become cancerous.
The American Cancer Society recommends getting screenings starting at age 45 for people at average risk. Some people may be at increased risk for colon cancer due to a family history, a personal history of inflammatory bowel disease, or other risk factors. Talk to your doctor about when you should start and which tests might be right for you.