You Are What You Eat

Dr. Brittany Coveyou is an internal medicine physician at Lutheran Medical Center.

An apple a day, well, you know the rest. March is National Nutrition Month and National Colorectal Cancer (CRC) Month. It seems like an opportune time to focus on the foods we eat that may protect us from CRC or may contribute to it.   

Cases of CRC have been steadily declining since the mid-1980s in the over 50 age group.  Conversely, early onset CRC in the under 50 age group has been on the rise since the mid-1990s. This has prompted the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force and the American Cancer Society (ACS) to lower the recommended screening colonoscopy age from 50 to 45 years of age.  

CRC is the third common cancer diagnosis in the U.S. The ACS estimates there will be more than 150,000 new cases in 2024 and an estimated 53,000 deaths in the same year. It is the third cause of cancer deaths in men and fourth in women in the U.S. 

Early and improved colon cancer screening are reasons for the decline in CRC cases in the over 50 age group.   

 There are many steps we can take to improve our health and reduce our risk of CRC. Modifiable risk factors are being overweight, sedentary lifestyle, smoking and diet. The importance of maintaining your optimal weight, exercising regularly, not smoking, and following a healthy diet cannot be stressed enough. These factors go hand in hand. They reduce inflammation and help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome, needed to modulate the immune system. Regular aspirin or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory use has been shown to reduce CRC incidence as well, but their use should be balanced against other potential risks they present. 

The National Institutes of Health recognizes many dietary factors that are associated with protection from CRC. These include eating a high fiber diet, whole grains, beans, whole fruits and non-starchy vegetables, garlic, dairy products, and fish. Optimizing your intake of folate, magnesium, calcium, vitamin B6 and vitamin D have also been shown to reduce the risk of

CRC. Eating a plant based diet or pesco-vegetarian diet is associated with lower CRC incidence.   

Greatly reducing or eliminating the consumption of processed meats, charred meats, alcohol, refined grains and sugar has been shown to reduce CRC risk. An added benefit of eating a healthy diet in moderation is easier weight management.  

It is important to consider what we do and don’t eat. Perhaps the old adage, “you are what you eat” should be updated to “you are what you eat and what you don’t eat.”  Consult with your primary care physician to discuss your risk for CRC and steps you can take to reduce it. 

Dr. Brittany Coveyou is an internal medicine physician at Lutheran Medical Center.

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