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Colorectal Cancer Health Center

Preventing Colon Cancer: What You Can Do

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April 19, 2000 -- Two new studies published in The New England Journal of Medicine go against conventional wisdom, indicating that high-fiber diets may not protect us from colon cancer. But across the country, doctors like Shanthi Sitaraman, MD, say they won't change the dietary advice they have been giving patients.

"Fiber in the diet is still good for preventing many diseases -- heart disease, cancer," Sitaraman, an assistant professor of medicine and digestive diseases at Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, tells WebMD. Low-fat foods are also important, she says, because they offset obesity -- another risk factor for many diseases.

Colorectal cancer is second only to lung cancer as a leading cause of cancer deaths in the US. Yet as Sitaraman tells her patients, colon cancer is probably preventable if you "eat five servings of fruits and vegetables every day, get regular exercise, don't smoke, and drink only a little alcohol. One glass of wine daily is plenty."

"Also, if a woman is postmenopausal and at risk for osteoporosis, I would advise taking calcium supplements with vitamin D -- it has been shown to decrease incidence of polyp formation and colorectal cancer," Sitaraman says. Regular screenings for colorectal cancer after age 50 are also essential, doctors say. Some experts say more than 50% of colon cancer cases are preventable.

Research is yielding other clues to preventing this disease.

Take the fruits/vegetables issue: another study has shown that a type of nutrient found in spinach, broccoli, lettuce, tomatoes and oranges is what helps protect against colon cancer. These foods are rich in a carotenoid known as lutein.

Carotenoids are the pigments that give certain fruits and vegetables their yellow and orange colors. They are also found in broccoli and in dark, leafy greens.

In the lutein study, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers compared the diets of nearly 2,000 people with colon cancer with those of more than 2,400 without the disease. Participants who reported eating the most foods rich in lutein were much less likely to develop colon cancer than those consuming the least lutein-rich foods.

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