Your colon is the largest part of your large intestine, an important organ in your digestive tract.
The colon is responsible for absorbing water and nutrients from the things you eat and drink, helping facilitate healthy digestion.
If your colon isn’t healthy, you could be at risk of developing colon cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, the lifetime risk of getting colon cancer is about 1 in 23 for men and 1 in 26 for women.
Colon cancer is the third-leading cause of cancer-related death for men and women in the United States.
While you can’t control your genetics and some factors that impact cancer risk, you can focus on eating a diet that can promote good colon health.
Keep reading to learn what foods you should eat for good colon health and what foods to avoid.
Why food matters for a healthy colon
While many factors come into play to impact your colon cancer risk, there is a clear link between your diet and colon health.
According to studies, a typical Western diet that is high in meat (including processed meat like hot dogs), refined grains, and sugar while being low in fiber, fruits, and vegetables is thought to increase your colon cancer risk.
The food you eat is especially important for your colon health because it is directly passed through your digestive system, which includes your colon.
Certain foods can cause inflammation in your digestive system, which increases your risk of inflammatory bowel conditions like inflammatory bowel disease, colon cancer, and others.
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37 best foods to eat for colon health
Fiber-rich fruits and vegetables
A study surveyed over 300,000 men and women to assess their nutritional intake, then followed up on colon cancer rates.
According to the study, a diet high in fruits and vegetables is inversely related to colon cancer, meaning it is associated with lower rates of colon cancer compared to a diet low in fruits and vegetables.
How are fruits and vegetables helpful for improving colon health? Several reasons are suspected, including their antioxidant content and fiber content.
Antioxidants come in the form of phytochemicals in fruits and vegetables, and they help fight inflammation (the root cause of all cancer is inflammation, causing abnormal cells to grow).
Fiber is also associated with a reduced colon cancer risk, especially coming from cereals (whole grains) and fruit.
All fruits and vegetables are sources of fiber, but some are especially high, such as:
|High-fiber fruits||High-fiber vegetables|
|Raspberries – 8 grams of fiber per cup||Green peas – 9 grams per cup|
|Blackberries – 8 grams per cup||Broccoli – 5 grams per one cup chopped|
|Pears – 5.5 grams per medium fruit||Turnip greens – 5 grams per one cup boiled|
|Apples – 4.5 grams per medium fruit||Brussels sprouts – 4 grams per one cup|
|Strawberries – 3 grams per cup||Baked potato with the skin on – 4 grams per medium potato|
|Banana – 3 grams per medium fruit||Corn – 3 grams per one cup|
Like fruits and vegetables, whole grains are rich in fiber, which is beneficial for colon health. Not only is a high-fiber diet associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer, but fiber also acts as a prebiotic.
Prebiotics feed the healthy bacteria in your digestive tract, which helps support healthy digestion and immune function.
Some examples of whole grains include:
- Whole grain corn
- Whole wheat bread, tortillas, pancakes, etc.
- Brown rice
Dried peas, lentils, and beans (black beans, garbanzo beans, etc.) are vegetables that are very rich in fiber.
Not only are they high in fiber, but legumes are excellent sources of plant-based protein and iron.
Replacing meat with plant-based protein can help reduce saturated fat intake, which is one factor that can impact colon health.
According to a 2015 meta-analysis, intake of legumes is associated with a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.
Try adding legumes to your salads as a side dish, or as an ingredient in homemade veggie burgers.
Vitamin C-rich foods
Vitamin C is a powerful antioxidant, helping to fight inflammation and protect cells from damage that could lead to abnormal cell growth and cancer.
Even though it was a vitamin C supplement and not food, this American Cancer Society study had interesting findings:
- “Use of vitamin C supplements for 10 or more years was associated with decreased risk of colorectal cancer mortality before age 65 years”, as well as decreasing the risk of colon cancer mortality at any age.
You can get vitamin C from plant-based foods such as:
- Citrus fruits (oranges, kiwi, lemon, grapefruit)
- Bell peppers
- Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and cauliflower
- White potatoes
Nuts & seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in plant-based protein as well as being high in fiber. They’re a good source of healthy unsaturated fats, and some kinds of nuts are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
A 2018 study concluded that a high frequency of eating nuts was associated with reduced colon cancer risk in both men and women.
Probiotics are healthy bacteria that reside in your digestive system, helping to facilitate normal digestion and bowel habits.
Eating foods rich in probiotics can promote healthy gut bacteria balance and reduce bloating, gas, and other signs of altered gut bacteria.
Fermented foods are the best sources of probiotics and include:
18 foods to avoid
There’s been a lot of debate on whether saturated fats are unhealthy or not. Like any food, saturated fats should be eaten in moderation, and the research isn’t clear on just how different types of fat impact colon cancer risk.
One study suggested that eating fewer saturated fats might contribute to a lower colon cancer risk.
Saturated fats are primarily found in animal products but can also be found in plant foods like coconut and palm oil.
Red meat, in particular, has been associated with an increased colon cancer risk. However, studies citing this increased risk didn’t specify the fat content of the red meat in the studies reviewed to determine risk, so it’s difficult to ascertain if the increased colon cancer risk from red meat is due to the saturated fat content or other factors.
Some foods high in saturated fat to be mindful of include:
- beef (especially non-lean cuts)
- poultry with the skin on
- lard and cream
- ice cream
- coconut (including coconut oil)
- palm oil and palm kernel oil
- some baked and fried foods
Processed meats are those that have been preserved by processes like smoking or salting, curing, or adding chemical preservatives.
One of the aspects thought to increase colon cancer risk is cooking meats at high temperatures, which can form potentially dangerous compounds that could be carcinogenic (cancer-causing).
Examples of processed meats to limit or avoid for colon health:
- Hot dogs
- Beef jerky
- Deli meats, including roast beef and turkey
A diet high in added sugar is associated with an increased risk of several health problems, including different types of cancer.
Added sugar is primarily found in processed foods and sugary drinks. It can disrupt the balance of healthy bacteria in your colon and promote inflammation.
Aim to limit your added sugar intake to fewer than 24 grams per day for women and fewer than 36 grams per day for men (according to the American Heart Association).
Checking the nutrition facts labels on the foods and drinks you buy is a great place to start monitoring where you might be getting excess added sugar in your regular diet.
Foods to eat to promote good colon health (and potentially reduce the risk of colorectal cancer) include fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, probiotic-rich foods, and vitamin C-rich foods.
Foods that might increase your risk of colon cancer include saturated fats (especially from red meat), processed meats, and foods and drinks high in added sugar.