Diet And Screening Are Keys To Colon Health And Disease Prevention

National Colon Cancer Awareness Month wraps up next week but a national push to eat more fruits and vegetables is just beginning – and the two themes dovetail nicely, says a medical expert.

A healthy diet is a key ingredient to having a healthy colon and helping prevent colorectal cancer, explains Martin Luchtefeld, M.D., medical director of digestive diseases at Spectrum Health. “Most people don’t know how big a role the colon plays in maintaining a healthy immune system and your health in general.’ This campaign underscores the connection between good health and cancer prevention.”

Luchtefeld is referring to a new health initiative from the Produce for Better Health (PBH) Foundation, called Fruits & Veggies – More MattersTM. PBH is promoting a simple nutrition message that is attainable and easy for people to understand: most people benefit from eating more fruits and vegetables every day. The initiative began March 19.

While Fruits & Veggies – More MattersTM is aimed at improving general health through better nutrition, the same recommendations help to improve colon function and prevent disease, Luchtefeld says.

“While the jury is still out on fiber’s role in reducing the risk of colon cancer, it remains important in preventing many other colon-related problems, such as diverticulitis and irritable bowel syndrome,” said Luchtefeld, who also is a partner in MMPC-Ferguson Clinic, a group of colorectal surgeons. “Increasing your fiber intake has a lot of benefits, so add whole-grain products, beans, peas and fruits to your diet.”

When it comes to eating more fruits and vegetables, people should take a rainbow approach because produce of all colors have immune-strengthening and anti-cancer properties, Luchtefeld explained. Diets high in foods from plant sources (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans) have been associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer. Many studies indicate that people who eat a plant-based diet low in animal fat, and that contains plenty of fruits and vegetables have less colorectal cancer and other digestive disorders.

As you increase your intake of fruits and vegetables, also work on decreasing your intake of dietary fat and red meat. “Eating animal fat, which is high in saturated fat, and red meat have been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer,” said Luchtefeld. “Dairy products are also a source of saturated fat; choosing low-fat or fat-free milk, yogurt and cheese will reduce saturated fat consumption.”

While following a good diet can keep you healthy and help prevent cancer, early screening and detection remain the best weapons in fighting colorectal cancer, Luchtefeld said. Colorectal cancer is the third most common form of cancer in the U.S., but the death rate for this disease has steadily declined over the past 15 years due to screening and early detection.

The risk of developing colorectal cancer increases with advancing age. More than 90 percent of cases occur in people age 50 or older. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) list of other risk factors include:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • A personal or family history of colorectal cancer or colorectal polyps
  • Certain hereditary syndromes

Lifestyle factors that may contribute to increased risk of colorectal cancer include:

  • Lack of regular physical activity
  • Low fruit and vegetable intake
  • A low-fiber and high-fat diet
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Tobacco use

“If you have one or more of the risk factors we’ve mentioned, you have a higher risk of developing colorectal cancer,” said Luchtefeld. “That means you should begin screening at a younger age and may need to be tested more frequently. Anyone with a risk factor needs to discuss screening with their physician.”

The CDC-recommended screening tests and intervals are:

  • Fecal occult blood test (FOBT), which checks for hidden blood in stool samples, should be administered every year.
  • Flexible sigmoidoscopy, using a flexible, lighted tube (sigmoidoscope) to inspect the interior walls of the rectum and part of the colon, should be administered every five years.
  • Double-contrast barium enema, a test that uses a series of X-rays of the colon and rectum (taken after the patient is given an enema containing barium dye), should be administered every five years.
  • Colonoscopy, using a flexible, lighted tube (colonoscope) to inspect the interior walls of the rectum and the entire colon, should be administered every 10 years. During this procedure, samples of tissue may be collected for closer examination, or polyps may be removed. Colonoscopies can be used as screening tests or as follow-up diagnostic tools when the results of another screening test are positive.

“It’s important that people realize colorectal cancer usually has no early signs or symptoms, so regular screening, beginning at age 50, is the key to preventing colorectal cancer,” said Luchtefeld.’ Some studies suggest that routine screening can reduce the number of people who die of colorectal cancer by as much as 60 percent.

Spectrum Health is a not-for-profit health system in West Michigan that offers a full continuum of care through its seven hospitals, more than 140 service sites and 460,000-member health plan, Priority Health.’ Spectrum Health’s 13,000 employees, 1,400 medical staff members and 2,000 volunteers are committed to delivering the highest quality care to those in medical need.’ The organization provided more than $100 million in community benefit during its 2006 fiscal year. Spectrum Health has earned more than 50 national awards during the past 10 years.