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Diet & Colon Cancer

Women who fill their diets with red or processed meats, french fries, white bread and sugary desserts may have an increased risk of colon cancer, according to Major Dietary Patterns and the Risk of Colorectal Cancer in Women from the February 10, 2003 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.

Dietary Patterns and Cancer Risk

Researchers followed more than 76,000 women for 12 years to determine how their dietary patterns affect the risk for colon and rectal cancers. They identified two main patterns: the “prudent” diet consisting primarily of fruit, vegetables, fish and whole grains and the “Western” diet consisting mainly of red meat, fried foods, refined grains and desserts. The results revealed a significant association between the Western diet and the risk of colon cancer.

Western Diet and Cancer

The “Western diet” has been linked to an increased risk of colon cancer for several reasons. According to Teresa Fung, ScD, RD, LDN, lead researcher and assistant professor at the department of nutrition at Simmons College, in Boston, Massachusetts, “Red meats are cooked in high heat and may generate nitrosamines, which may be carcinogenic. Many processed meats are preserved with nitrites, and may also be converted to nitrosamine in the gut.” In other words, the processes of cooking or preserving meat may produce cancer-causing chemicals.

Dietary Habits and Cancer – First Major Study

While other studies have suggested an association between dietary habits and colorectal cancer, none have the scientific validity of this current study. “This is the first, large prospective study to look at dietary patterns and colon cancer,” explains Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, one of the key researchers and Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition and Chair, Department of Nutrition, at the Harvard School of Public Health. A prospective study means that the data about dietary patterns was collected while the participants were healthy, before any diagnosis of cancer was made. According to Dr. Willet, because the study was “prospective and large, the findings are more credible than the findings of prior studies.”

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer among men and women in the United States and the second leading cause of total cancer death in the U.S., according to data from the American Gastroenterological Association. More women over the age of 75 will die of colorectal cancer than from breast cancer.

Importance of Dietary Habits and Health

The findings of this study underscore the importance of dietary habits, along with regular screening, in the prevention of cancer. According to Dr. Willett, patients can also: “reduce the risk of colon cancer by staying lean and exercising regularly, avoiding cigarette smoking and high alcohol consumption (greater than 2 drinks per day).”

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