10 Ways to Reduce Your Risk of Colorectal Cancer

Healthy habits

Colorectal cancer is the fourth most commonly diagnosed type of cancer and the second most common cause of cancer death in the U.S.

These are somber statistics, but there's an important point to be made: Colorectal cancer is preventable.

"By living a healthy lifestyle and following screening guidelines, you can reduce your chances of developing colorectal cancer," says Dr. Anaum Maqsood, a gastrointestinal medical oncologist at Houston Methodist.

Here are 10 things anyone can do to help reduce their colorectal cancer risk.

1. Get to your healthy weight and maintain it

"Obesity — being very overweight — is linked to a higher risk of developing several types of cancer, including colorectal cancer," says Dr. Maqsood.

What's a healthy weight and what's considered overweight? The answer can be tricky. In terms of an ideal weight, it's very individualized. There's no single best number that applies to everyone.

One imperfect but still helpful tool doctors use to assess whether someone's weight may be affecting their health is body mass index (BMI), a measurement of a person's height-to-weight ratio.

If your BMI is higher than 25, it might be a sign that you're overweight. A BMI of 30 or higher is a sign of obesity.

It's best to work with your doctor to understand if you're overweight and make a plan for losing weight if that's the case. Once you're at a healthy weight, eating a well-balanced diet and exercising frequently will help you stay in the normal range.

2. Eat vegetables and fruits

"The research is somewhat limited, but studies have shown that diets prioritizing plants, including vegetarian and pescovegetarian diets, are associated with a lower risk of colorectal cancer," explains Dr. Maqsood.

(Related: What Is a Plant-Based Diet & How Should You Get Started?)

There's no one clear answer as to why this might be the case, but it's not totally surprising. Fruits and veggies contain many beneficial nutrients, including fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and other phytochemicals.

However, according to the CDC, only 9% of adults eat enough fruits and vegetables. Yikes. Aim to fill half of your plate with vegetables or fruit at every meal.

3. Limit your alcohol consumption

Drinking alcohol doesn't just come with short-term risks. There are long-term health consequences of moderate to heavy alcohol use, including an increased risk for developing colorectal cancer — as well as other types of cancer.

If you decide to drink, keep to no more than one serving of alcohol per day — though less is of course better. The NIH's definition of one serving:

  • 12 ounces of 5% ABV beer
  • 5 ounces of 12% ABV wine
  • 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor

ABV, which stands for alcohol by volume, is stated on the bottle. Be sure to check this number since some drinks have higher percentages than those listed above.

4. Eat a fiber-rich diet

"We know fiber comes with many health benefits — keeping bowel movements regular, promoting good gut health and aiding with weight control since it helps keeps you feeling full for longer," says Dr. Maqsood. "A few studies have also shown that adequate fiber intake is associated with reduced colorectal cancer risk."

But similar to how our diets are sorely lacking in fruits and veggies, only 5% of men and 9% of women eat enough fiber on a daily basis.

To help reduce your colorectal cancer risk — as well as your risk for several other chronic health conditions, by the way — it's important to be sure you're getting enough fiber every day.

5. Avoid processed meats

"Many studies have shown that eating a lot of processed meat increases a person's risk of developing colorectal cancer," says Dr. Maqsood.

For this reason, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) designated processed meat as "carcinogenic" — meaning it has the potential to cause cancer.

Processed meats include lunch meat, bacon, and sausage. Even organic or nitrate-free lunch meat is still considered processed.

6. Limit red meat

"In addition to processed meat, red meat is also associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer," adds Dr. Maqsood.

Red meat doesn't just include beef, by the way. It also includes pork, bison and venison.

Instead, choose leaner animal proteins, like chicken, fish, or beans, or plant-based protein options, such as beans, lentils, tofu, quinoa and chickpeas.

If you eat red meat, be mindful of your portions. And when preparing it, you're better off baking, broiling, or poaching instead of smoking, barbequing, or charbroiling.

7. Increase the frequency and intensity of physical activity

Research shows that exercise helps lower a person's risk of developing several types of cancer, colorectal cancer included. Try to exercise at least 30 minutes per day, five days per week. But any combination of exercise that totals 150 minutes a week is good.

Every activity counts, from cardio and strength training to house chores and yard work. So get moving!

8. Be aware of the colorectal cancer risk factors

Other risk factors of colorectal cancer include:

  • Age: 50 or older
  • A history of alcohol and tobacco use
  • Being overweight and physically inactive
  • Eating a low-fiber diet
  • Race: African Americans have a much higher risk
  • Personal history of inflammatory or gastrointestinal conditions
  • Family history of colorectal cancer

If you're higher risk, begin establishing a relationship with a gastrointestinal specialist now so that you have someone who already understands your health history in the event you do begin to experience concerning issues.

9. Get screened regularly for colorectal cancer beginning at age 45

One of the most effective ways to reduce your risk is to follow the colorectal cancer screening guidelines.

"Screening tests can help find precancerous polyps before they develop into cancer or when it's still an early cancer that's easier to treat," says Dr. Maqsood.

Screening colonoscopies typically begin at age 45 and are done every 10 years. If you're higher risk, however, your doctor may recommend beginning screening colonoscopies earlier and having them more frequently.

10. Know the reasons for screening earlier

Talk to your doctor about whether you may need to begin colorectal cancer screening earlier than age 45 if you have:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), such as Crohn's disease or ulcerative colitis
  • A family history or colorectal cancer
  • A personal history of colorectal polyps
  • Certain genetic syndromes, like familial adenomatous polyposis (FAP) or hereditary non-polyposis colorectal cancer (Lynch syndrome)

March 14, 2023