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Can Diet Help Deflect Colon Cancer?
Findings expand the appeal of anti-inflammatory plans

02/19/2018 By Craig Weatherby

Colorectal cancer ranks among the most detectable and preventable forms.

That's fortunate, because colon cancer is the third most common kind in the U.S. and the second leading cause of cancer deaths.

Anyone over age 50 should get a colonoscopy or take an at-home test, which will either provide some reassurance, or indicate a risk that requires a colonoscopy.

And new evidence supports prior indications that diet choices affecting inflammation can significantly raise or lower your risk for colon cancer.

Inflammation: Friend and foe
Like the Roman god Janus, inflammation has two faces.

This key aspect of the body's immune response can be your enemy or ally.

Inflammation is a healthy response to wounds and infections, but it becomes harmful when it persists for no good reason.

A blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP) is one of the most commonly used medical measures of inflammation — and there are clear links between high CRP levels and major illnesses, including cancer, arthritis, dementia, cardiovascular disease, auto-immune gut disorders, and diabetes.

Chronic, “silent” inflammation also makes us biologically older than our calendar years: see Chronic Inflammation Speeds Aging.

Anti-inflammatory diets emphasize foods that inhibit chronic inflammation, thereby reducing the risk for inflammation-related illnesses.

To learn more about foods and diets that can help dampen inflammation, see Silent but Deadly Threat: Inflammation and "Anti-inflammatory foods and supplements to reduce colon risks", below.

Large study links pro-inflammatory foods to higher colon risk
Links between pro-inflammatory diets and the risk of colon cancer just got stronger.

The new findings come from a comparison of diet and health among 121,050 male and female health care professionals who were followed for 26 years (Tabung FK et al. 2018).

The participants were enrolled in similar but separate epidemiological studies that looked for links between diet or lifestyle and health outcomes:

  • 74,246 women in the Nurses’ Health Study (NHS-II), conducted from 1984 to 2012
  • 46,804 men in the Health Professionals Follow-up Study (HPFS), conducted from 1986 to 2012

The participants in both studies completed diet surveys every four years, and answered questions about their lifestyle and health status every two years.

Two years ago, the same researchers created a predictive tool called the Empirical Dietary Inflammatory Pattern (EDIP), by comparing diet data to blood-test data from participants in the NHS and HPFS studies (Tabung FK et al. 2016).

The EDIP tool accurately predicts people's blood levels of key inflammation markers, based on their self-reported diets:

  • Pro-inflammatory diets are those high in sugary beverages, refined grains, and processed, red meat, or organ meats, but low in anti-inflammatory foods.
  • Anti-inflammatory diets are those high in vegetables, whole grains, fish, coffee, tea, and wine, but low in pro-inflammatory foods.

For this new study, they used the EDIP tool to rank people’s diets on a scale that ranged from "very pro-inflammatory" to "very anti-inflammatory".

Based on the participants' EDIP scores, the team then compared the rates at which those with the most- and least-inflammatory diets developed colorectal cancer over the 26-year study period.

They also adjusted their analysis to account for potential “confounding” factors, such as the fact that people who are inactive or overweight tend to have higher levels of inflammation.

After making those adjustments, the scientists’ analysis linked the most-inflammatory diets to a 32% higher risk of developing colorectal cancer, with these differences between the genders:

  • Men who ate the most-inflammatory diets were 44 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer, compared to the men who ate the least-inflammatory diets.
  • Women who ate the most-inflammatory diets were 22 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer, compared to the women who ate the least-inflammatory diets.

According to lead author Fred Tabung of Harvard, “There are several stimulators of chronic inflammation, and diet is one of those factors ... with this study we are inching closer to understanding inflammation as a cancer risk.”

Anti-inflammatory foods and supplements to reduce colon risks
One key factor explains why vegetables, coffee, tea, and red wine can reduce inflammation.

That factor is the abundant presence in a food or beverage of compounds with antioxidant properties, such as vitamin C, vitamin E, polyphenols, and carotenoids.

As it happens, coffee is the leading source of antioxidants in the standard American diet, largely because it lacks vegetables but is high in antioxidant-rich coffee.

Importantly, foodborne antioxidants exert anti-inflammatory effects in the body, through their so-called “nutrigenomic” influences on our genes. For more about that, see these articles:

The best way to dampen inflammation is to raise the proportion of anti-inflammatory foods in your diet: fruits, vegetables, seafood, extra virgin olive oil, herbs and spices, whole grains (not just whole-grain flour), non-alkalized (non-Dutched) cocoa, coffee, and tea.

And to further counter the effects of pro-inflammatory foods — and/or a shortage of exercise — it makes sense to take supplements known to moderate inflammation.

These supplements include curcumin (from turmeric root) and seafood-source omega-3 fatty acids. For more about their effects on oxidation and inflammation, see these articles:


  • Liu L et al. Association Between Inflammatory Diet Pattern and Risk of Colorectal Carcinoma Subtypes Classified by Immune Responses to Tumor. Gastroenterology. 2017 Dec;153(6):1517-1530.e14. doi: 10.1053/j.gastro.2017.08.045. Epub 2017 Sep 1.
  • Song M et al. Marine ω-3 Polyunsaturated Fatty Acid Intake and Risk of Colorectal Cancer Characterized by Tumor-Infiltrating T Cells. JAMA Oncol. 2016 Sep 1;2(9):1197-206. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2016.0605.
  • Song M et al. Marine ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and risk of colorectal cancer according to microsatellite instability. J Natl Cancer Inst. 2015 Mar 25;107(4). pii: djv007. doi: 10.1093/jnci/djv007. Print 2015 Apr.
  • Song M, Chan AT, Fuchs CS, Ogino S, Hu FB, Mozaffarian D, Ma J, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL, Wu K. Dietary intake of fish, ω-3 and ω-6 fatty acids and risk of colorectal cancer: A prospective study in U.S. men and women. Int J Cancer. 2014 Nov 15;135(10):2413-23. doi: 10.1002/ijc.28878. Epub 2014 Apr 15.
  • Song M, Zhang X, Meyerhardt JA, Giovannucci EL, Ogino S, Fuchs CS, Chan AT. Marine ω-3 polyunsaturated fatty acid intake and survival after colorectal cancer diagnosis. Gut. 2017 Oct;66(10):1790-1796. doi: 10.1136/gutjnl-2016-311990. Epub 2016 Jul 19.
  • Tabung FK, Liu L, Wang W, Fung TT, Wu K, Smith-Warner SA, Cao Y, Hu FB, Ogino S, Fuchs CS, Giovannucci EL. Association of Dietary Inflammatory Potential With Colorectal Cancer Risk in Men and Women. JAMA Oncol. 2018 Jan 18. doi: 10.1001/jamaoncol.2017.4844. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Tabung FK, Smith-Warner SA, Chavarro JE, Wu K, Fuchs CS, Hu FB, Chan AT, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. Development and Validation of an Empirical Dietary Inflammatory Index. J Nutr. 2016 Aug;146(8):1560-70. doi: 10.3945/jn.115.228718. Epub 2016 Jun 29.
  • Tabung FK, Smith-Warner SA, Chavarro JE, Fung TT, Hu FB, Willett WC, Giovannucci EL. An Empirical Dietary Inflammatory Pattern Score Enhances Prediction of Circulating Inflammatory Biomarkers in Adults. J Nutr. 2017 Aug;147(8):1567-1577. doi: 10.3945/jn.117.248377. Epub 2017 Jun 28.