We have known for years that healthy, high-fiber foods — especially those with anti-inflammatory properties — can promote wellness and reduce your colon cancer risk.
But now we know that processed foods that cause inflammation in the body can increase your colon cancer risk. This means that eliminating foods that are bad for you is just as important as adding foods that are good for you, says Cathy Clark-Reyes, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Baptist Health Primary Care .
Released just in time for National Colorectal Cancer Awareness Month, combined data from two studies revealed that people whose diets consisted of high levels of inflammatory foods were 37 percent more likely to develop colon cancer and 70 percent more likely to develop rectal cancer, compared with people who had the lowest inflammation diet score. This is not the first time that chronic inflammation has been linked to cancer. It also has been associated with diabetes, lung health, bone health, depression and heart disease.
Inflammation is a protective response in your body. However, chronic inflammation due to a poor diet or extreme stress is not healthy. These studies linked cancer-related inflammation to foods such as processed meats, grain-fed red meat, refined flour and sugary foods and drinks. On the other hand, researchers found that green leafy vegetables, dark yellow vegetables, fruits and healthy fats have an anti-inflammatory effect.
“This is consistent with what we have been recommending for a healthy diet,” said Ms. Clark-Reyes. “You should avoid highly processed, greasy and sugary foods and eat more high-fiber foods such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains. A diet high in fiber also keeps things moving, which helps keep the colon healthy.”
To reduce your risk of colorectal cancer — one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the U.S., experts recommend avoiding foods high in:
- Refined starches, such as packaged cookies and crackers.
- Added sugar, such as that in sodas and sweet drinks.
- Saturated fats, including processed meats like hot dogs; whole milk and cheese; and fried foods.
- Trans fats, including margarine and coffee creamers.
“Processed foods are energy dense, meaning they provide many calories with little value to your body; while whole foods are nutrient dense, meaning they provide nutrients for your body such as fiber, vitamins and minerals with low added sugar and fat,” Ms. Clark-Reyes explained. “Watch out for glorified healthy foods, such as veggie sticks. Since these are processed, they lose much of their nutritional value. It’s better to eat the real veggies.”
By definition, whole foods are foods with one ingredient, such as watermelon, cauliflower and salmon. Ms. Clark-Reyes and other experts recommend including these anti-inflammatory foods in your diet:
- Vitamin K-rich leafy greens, like spinach, kale, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage.
- Fresh fruits that are rich in color, like cherries, raspberries and blackberries.
- Plant-based proteins, such as beans and unsalted nuts.
- Whole unrefined grains, including oatmeal, brown rice and quinoa.
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna and sardines.
- Other foods high in omega-3 fatty acids (healthy fats), like avocado, olive oil and canola oil.
- Herbs and spices that are high in antioxidants, such as turmeric and garlic.
Simple, clean eating recipes made with whole, unprocessed foods are easy to find online, Ms. Clark-Reyes says. She also offers a clever kitchen tip: Freeze chopped herbs in an ice cube tray with a bit of olive oil or water, and then add the frozen herb blocks during your meal prep to add healthy flavor.