We have known for a long time that there has been some influence between dietary factors and colorectal cancer, the second leading cause of cancer death annually in the United States. But recent research links “inflammatory” dietary patterns with an increased risk of developing colon cancer.
A trend that also raises alarm bells for me and other colleagues in my field of Gastroenterology is the sharp increase in the incidence of colorectal cancers (CRC) in young people. I find it particularly hard to see a younger person with advanced-stage colon cancer, when the disease could have been diagnosed much sooner.
Colon and rectal cancers are curable if caught early, and preventable if precancerous polyps are removed before progressing to colon cancer. It is important for all of us to think about how foods associated with high inflammatory markers in the body may increase cancer risk.
Foods shown to promote inflammation include processed meats, red meat, sugary beverages and refined grains. A group of Harvard researchers including nutritionist and epidemiologist Edward Giovannucci used a tool called the Empirical Dietary Inflammatory Pattern (EDIP) scale which classified food groups according to their inflammatory properties.
For everyday grocery shoppers, what kinds of foods should you think about avoiding on an anti-inflammatory diet? Processed meats, which include sausage, cured meats, corned beef, beef jerky and bacon. A person may want to roast their own chicken breast for sandwich meat rather than buying processed chicken or turkey.
What about red meat that is not processed? While there is some data to suggest high red meat intake (more than 500 milligrams cooked a week) probably increases the risk of colorectal cancer, it is not a slam dunk. There is, however, research suggesting that charring from open flame, high-temperature cooking may lead to potential carcinogen production. Sugary drinks, in fact all refined sugar and refined flour are easier for the health-conscious to avoid by reading nutrition labels.
Consider eating more plant-based foods, ones that are high in fiber are thought to decrease inflammation. Choose whole grains, green leafy and dark yellow vegetables. In some studies those appear to reduce inflammation. Again, while the connection between pro-inflammatory properties of food and CRC is relatively new, people of all ages should think about their food choices, not just older adults.
Overlake Medical Center is proud to sponsor events like the Mercer Island Half Marathon, which draw athletes of all ages because they raise awareness of colon cancer prevention. Younger people, too, should understand the risk factors, such as a strong family history of colorectal cancer or polyps. Younger individuals may also be more likely to ignore warning signs, such as rectal bleeding, unintentional weight loss, anemia or a change in bowel habits. If someone notices these, regardless of their age, I recommend they see their health care provider. Colorectal cancer is easiest to treat when caught early.
Raj C. Butani is a gastroenterologist with Washington Gastroenterology, Bellevue division and affiliated with Overlake Medical Center.