Can good nutrition help prevent bowel cancer?

So the good news is that 90 per cent of bowel cancer cases are treatable, if detected early. Diet, lifestyle factors and screening are the most important ways to prevent bowel cancer. However, bowel cancer risk increases dramatically and progressively from the age of 50 so why not get on board early and help cut back on risk factors? 

Bowel Cancer Australia Nutritionist and bowel cancer survivor, Teresa Mitchell-Paterson, says there is a lot of confusion around diet and which foods can increase or reduce our risk of bowel cancer. “There have been a number of scientific studies that have discovered links between certain foods and bowel cancer risk. Some foods can increase bowel cancer risk, whilst others appear to reduce bowel cancer risk,” she says.

Here are her diet recommendations for reducing your bowel cancer risk:

Lower intake of red meat (beef, pork and lamb)
There is a link between red meat and bowel cancer. It is now recommended that we should eat less than 500g (cooked weight) of red meat a week. As a rough guide this is equal to:

  • One pork chop = 75g
  • Spaghetti bolognese with minced beef = 140g
  • T bone steak = 250g

Experiment with a couple of meat free days during the week - vegetarian foods can be tasty, filling and nutritious. 

Looking for inspiration for delicious vegetarian meals? Click here for a delicious spinach, feta, and tomato quiche as a light meal.

Lower intake of processed meat (bacon, ham, salami, some sausages)
Processed meat is strongly linked with an increased risk of bowel cancer, and therefore should be avoided as much as possible.

Lower intake of alcohol
Drinking alcohol raises the risk of several common cancers, including bowel cancer. It is therefore suggested that alcoholic drinks are limited to two for men and one for women daily. One drink is measured as:

  • A bottle (375ml) of mid strength (3.5% ABV or alcohol by volume) beer or one 285ml Middy/Pot of full strength beer (4.9% ABV)
  • One 30ml measure of spirits (40% ABV) such as vodka or whisky
  • One small (100mls) glass of wine (12% ABV)

Increase dietary fibre
Many studies suggest that fibre and other nutrients in plant foods can lower the risk of bowel cancer. Fibre is indigestible plant material found in fruits, vegetables, wholegrain, seeds, beans and legumes. It provides a bulking agent to our food, which when combined with water intake assists food to pass through the gut, keeping the bowel clean and healthy. For every 10g of dietary fibre consumed daily, there is a 10 per cent risk reduction. The Australian dietary guidelines suggest 25-30g fibre daily.

  • Dietary fibres can be found in vegetables and fruits which are best eaten raw with their skin on for extra fibre. Aim for two pieces of fruit daily and five serves (400g) of vegetables daily. This is quite a lot of vegetables and less than 10 per cent of adult Australians eat enough vegetables. Easy ways to increase your vegetable intake? You can also juice fruit and vegetables or add to soups; however juicing may take out the valuable fibre content.
  • Grains and cereals, these are rice, oats, pasta, bread, cous cous, quinoa and breakfast cereals. Eat grains in their ground whole grain forms to retain fibre, such as wholemeal pasta, bread and baked goods. Limit refined baked foods with white flour.
  • Pulses, legumes and beans arelentils, red kidney beans, chickpeas and baked beans. They are tasty and a great meat alternative for a filling, cheap meal.

Increase exercise
Regular physical activity is linked to a decreased risk of bowel cancer. Physical activity may also reduce the risk of obesity, which is also linked to an increased bowel cancer risk. Aim for 30 minutes or more of physical exercise daily. To make the most of exercise ensure you have an elevated heart rate. Grab a friend and find something fun you’ll stick with!

Increase calcium and garlic intake
There is some evidence that foods containing calcium (milk and calcium enriched substitutes, seeds and vegetables) and diets with garlic have a probable risk reducing effect on bowel cancer.

If a person is diagnosed with bowel cancer the World Cancer Research Fund suggests the same dietary guidelines. High fibre diets may not be suitable if a person has to temporarily or permanently have a stoma. In this case expert advice from a dietician or nutritionist is necessary.

June is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month. To find out more and how you can get involved, visit the Bowel cancer awareness website.

To order a free bowel cancer awareness pack click here.

How do you find ways to increase your daily fibre intake? Join our conversation below…