While no cancer is completely preventable, you can lower your risk of bowel cancer by eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly.

Steps to take

A healthy diet and regular exercise can lower your risk of bowel cancer. Numerous studies have indicated that a diet too rich in red meat and processed foods can heighten the risk of bowel cancer. So, what can we eat to help prevent bowel cancer?

Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods, such as:

  • Plenty of vegetables, legumes (dried beans, peas, lentils), fruits and cereals (breads, rice, pasta and noodles), preferably whole grain
  • Lean meat, fish and poultry
  • Milks, yoghurts and cheeses, choosing reduced fat varieties where possible
  • Always drink plenty of water

Take care to:

  • Limit saturated fat and moderate total fat intake
  • Limit intake of red and processed meats
  • Choose foods low in salt
  • Limit alcohol intake if you choose to drink
  • Consume moderate amounts of sugars and foods containing added sugars
  • Quit smoking

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The health benefits of fruit and vegetables

Two serves of fruit and five of vegetables every day and the more colourful the better!

Fruit and vegetables have protective qualities
Fruit and vegetables contain a wide variety of substances known to provide significant health benefits, including carotenoids, vitamin C and E, and dietary fibre. They are also rich in complex plant components (phytochemicals) such as flavonoids. Some of the vitamins and phytochemicals are also antioxidants, destroying harmful free radicals (unstable molecules that can damage the body).

Fruit and vegetables eaten as part of a healthy diet provide a rich and beneficial cocktail for the body, not only as individual components but also by the interactions between these components. Dietary supplements containing isolated vitamins and minerals do not appear to offer the same beneficial effects as fruit and vegetables themselves.

Frequently asked questions

How do fruit and vegetables fit into a healthy diet?
Health authorities recommend a varied, balanced diet that is low in fat, salt, and added sugar. This type of diet contains plenty of fruit, vegetables and starchy foods such as rice, pasta and potatoes, moderate amounts of milk, dairy foods, and meat and alternatives, and small amounts of food containing a lot of fat or added sugars and salt. This diet should provide all the nutrients required by most people.

How much is one serve of fruit?
One serve of fruit is 150 grams, for example: one medium-sized apple, or two small apricots, or one cup of canned or chopped fruit, or ½ cup (125 ml) of 100% fruit juice, or four dried apricot halves. A glass of 100% fruit juice only counts once a day, irrespective of how much you drink. One serve of dried fruit counts but other types of fruit and vegetables should be eaten to meet the rest of the five-a-day target.

How much is one serve of vegetables?
One serve of vegetables (75 grams) is, for example: one medium potato, or one cup of salad vegetables, or ½ cup of cooked vegetables or ½ cup of cooked legumes (dried beans, peas, or lentils). Beans and other pulse vegetables such as kidney beans, lentils and chickpeas only count once a day, irrespective of how much you eat.

Can I get the same benefits from supplements?
No. Dietary supplements cannot provide the same benefits that fruit and vegetables can. Fruit and vegetables contain additional beneficial substances including fibre. Some people are advised to take a supplement in addition to eating a varied, balanced diet.

Does it matter if I eat the same fruit and vegetables every day?
Aim to eat a variety to get the most benefit. Different fruits and vegetables contain varying combinations of fibre, vitamins, minerals and nutrients.

The Mediterranean Diet

Much has been said in recent years about the health benefits provided by the Mediterranean Diet. Many of these benefits are linked to positive health outcomes and may help prevent the development of some diseases such as bowel cancer.

The Mediterranean Diet is an eating pattern inspired by the diet of southern European countries, emphasising the consumption of plant foods, olive oil, fish, poultry, beans and grains.

Key ingredients include fresh fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, oily fish, a moderate intake of dairy foods, and a low consumption of red meat and added sugars.

In 2015, a team of researchers set out to define the Mediterranean Diet using the following foods and quantities as the basis of their study:

  • Vegetables: Include 3 to 9 servings a day
  • Fresh fruit: Up to 2 servings a day
  • Cereals: Mostly whole grain from 1 to 13 servings a day
  • Oil: Up to 8 servings of extra virgin (cold pressed) olive oil a day
  • Fat: Mostly unsaturated — made up 37% of the total calories. Unsaturated fat comes from plant sources, such as olives and avocado.

The Mediterranean diet also provided 33 grams (g) of fiber a day and the baseline diet for this study provided around 2,200 calories a day.

Typical ingredients of a Mediterranean diet include:

  • Vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, cucumber, leafy green vegetables
  • Fruits such as melon, apples, apricots, peaches, oranges
  • Legumes such as beans, lentils, chickpeas
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, and cashews.
  • Unsaturated fat: Olive oil, sunflower oil, olives, and avocados.
  • Dairy products: Cheese and yogurt are the main dairy foods.
  • Cereals: These are mostly whole grain and include wheat and rice with bread accompanying many meals.
  • Fish: Sardines and other oily fish, as well as oysters and other shellfish.
  • Poultry: Chicken or turkey.
  • Eggs: Chicken, quail, and duck eggs.
  • Drinks: A person can drink red wine in moderation.

The Mediterranean diet does not include strong liquor or carbonated and sweetened drinks. According to one definition, the diet limits red meat and sweets to less than two servings per week.

Fruitful fibre

A high fibre diet can reduce the risk of constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and can help prevent bowel cancer.

What is fibre?
Fibre is indigestible plant material such as cellulose, lignin and pectin, and it is found in fruits, vegetables, grains and beans. Fibre provides bulk to your food, helps it pass easily through the gut, and retains water so it makes you feel full and eat less.

There are two types of fibre: soluble and insoluble. The soluble fibre in foods such as apples, citrus fruits, oats, dried peas, beans and lentils, dissolves in water and forms a thick gel in your stomach, slowing the rate of digestion and absorption. In moderation, these fibres feed intestinal bacteria and nourish the cells of the large intestine. This process may stimulate healing and reduce the development of cancer.

Insoluble fibre can be found in foods such as wheat bran, whole grains and some vegetables. While not feeding bacteria as well as soluble, researchers believe insoluble fibre can deactivate intestinal toxins, and a high intake may decrease the risk of bowel cancer.

How much fibre is enough?
Reports suggest women should eat 25g of fibre each day and men 30g. Most of us probably eat around 10-12g. A banana, or one slice of whole meal bread contains 1.8g of fibre.

How do you build fibre into your diet?

  • Replace lower fibre foods with high fibre foods.
  • Eat vegetables and fruit raw, whenever possible and avoid boiling, as up to half of the fibre is lost to the water. Ideal cooking method is by steam or stir-fry.
  • Replace fruit or vegetable juice with the whole fruit. Fruit skins and membranes are a particularly good source of fibre.
  • Start your day with a bowl of high-fibre cereal, preferably one that has five or more grams per serving.
  • Add fresh fruit to your cereal for an extra fibre dose. Sprinkle wheat germ or bran on top of cold cereals and mix with hot cereals during cooking.
  • Add bran cereal to muffins, breads and casseroles.
  • Buy and eat only whole grains.

Eating more fibre

Try substituting the lower fibre foods in your diet with these high fibre alternatives.

High fibre foods

  • Foods made with whole grain flours, for example whole wheat, rye, and graham (biscuits, muffins, cookies)

  • Whole grain pastas, brown rice or wild rice.
  • Fresh fruit and vegetables, especially if eaten with skin and membranes (if appropriate).

  • Salads made from a variety of raw vegetables.
  • Baked beans, cooked lentils and split peas.
  • Nuts, popcorn, seeds, dried fruit.

Low fibre foods

  • White bread.
  • Refined cereals.
  • Foods made with white flour.

  • Refined pastas, instant or polished rice.
  • Fruit juice.
  • Plain lettuce salads.
  • Meat, fish, poultry.
  • Crisps and similar snacks.

Physical Activity for Protection

Regular daily exercise of any type for at least 30 minutes a day may help reduce the risk of cancer. Obesity can significantly increase the chances of developing bowel cancer. Irrespective of height or build, a growing waistline may bring an increased risk of chronic diseases.

Even a small amount of exercise each day can bring real benefits, both mentally and physically. Activity increases energy levels, improves sleep, may reduce the risk of depression, and help prevent a range of chronic diseases.

You do not have to exercise to the point of collapse to get these health benefits! Start out by making small changes, and as you get used to them, gradually add more changes or activities. Aim to build up to 30 minutes (or more) of moderate-intensity physical activity every day: brisk walking is a good example, done at a pace where you can talk comfortably but not sing.

Time is in short supply for many of us these days so you do not have to do the 30 minutes all at once. You can accumulate your 30 minutes (or more) of moderate-intensity activity by combining some shorter sessions of 10 or 15 minutes during the day. Research has shown that accumulated short bouts of moderate-intensity activity are just as effective at improving health factors such as blood pressure and blood cholesterol.

Here are some tips for motivation and maintaining momentum:

  • Schedule 30-minutes of physical activity as part of your daily activities: Do not let anything else take priority.
  • Use exercise as a stress management technique: walk to clear your head and help you to make decisions about work and home.
  • Exercise with a friend or family member: it can be easier to keep the commitment and exercise habit when you have someone else encouraging you.
  • Be a role model for your kids: involve children in your physical activity regime so they can learn some healthy habits and prevent the risk of childhood obesity.
  • Track your progress by keeping an exercise log and recording your weekly activity.
  • Motivate yourself: remember how good it feels to complete a workout and to know you’re taking care of yourself.

The 30-Minute Exercise Guide
Exercise does not have to mean expensive gym memberships and treadmills. Here are some healthy and even ‘free’ alternatives!

  • Washing your car, windows or floors
  • Vacuuming
  • Walking or jogging to work
  • Walking the dog
  • Running up and down stairs
  • Cycling with the kids
  • Swimming or water aerobics
  • Aerobics or keep fit classes