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   Karen Collins, M.S., R.D.,C.D.N. | American Institute for Cancer Research

Colon Cancer: Is Fat or Fiber the Key?

by Karen Collins, M.S., R.D.,C.D.N.
American Institute for Cancer Research

Karen Collins, RD
New research is bolstering the initial findings that linked low-fat, high-fiber diets with reduced risk of colon cancer. According to these new studies, the contradictory results that were seen in some research findings were likely a reflection of small differences in the "healthy" diets that were studied.

For many years, both laboratory work and studies comparing different populations have linked high-fiber diets with lowered risk of colon cancer. Yet clinical trials, which compare small groups of individuals, didn't always show fiber to have a protective effect. Now a review in the journal Anticancer Research notes that the fiber in wheat bran shows greater cancer-fighting effects than some other types of fiber. It's not clear how much of these benefits come from the fiber itself, and how much from a phytochemical called phytate that is found in wheat bran fiber. Animal studies suggest that phytate inhibits early stages of cancer development. It seems to do so by acting as an antioxidant (helping to prevent or repair damage to cells than can lead to cancer) and by improving the immune system's ability to fight cancer.


Similarly, early laboratory tests and population studies clearly showed that high-fat diets increased colon cancer. Yet studies comparing individuals with high or low fat intake have not always supported a link with colon cancer.

Now a report in Carcinogenesis suggests that fats differ in their effects. Research shows that the composition of the body's cells actually changes with changes in dietary fat. Polyunsaturated oils create unstable cells that are more vulnerable to the kind of damage that can begin the cancer process. Omega-3 fatty acids (found in fatty fish) and monounsaturated fats (like olive and canola oils) don't seem to promote damage.

Risk may be more than a question of fat and fiber. Several studies have found substantial increases in risk related to frequency of eating red meat, but this is not supported consistently. Other studies suggest that it may not be a matter of red meat versus white, but of how it is cooked. When meat, fish or poultry is cooked at high temperatures (grilling, broiling, frying) substances form that can damage our genes in a way that allows cancer to begin developing. Cooking at lower temperatures, marinating or cooking food partially in a microwave before grilling or broiling helps reduce formation of these substances.

A major report on diet and cancer risk from the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) found convincing evidence that eating an abundance of vegetables and fruits offers protection against colon cancer. While researchers puzzle over which vitamins, phytochemicals and fiber types might be most helpful, the bottom line is that boosting our intake to at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables daily could probably lower colon cancer risk by 30 to 50 percent.

According to AICR, regular exercise is another strongly supported route to lower risk. Maintaining a healthy weight has also shown some relationship to lower colon cancer risk. It is unclear, however, whether this is due to actual effects of body fat or to differences in exercise or eating habits.

Despite recent confusing reports, colon cancer remains one of our most preventable cancers. Although fat and fiber consumption continue to get most of the limelight, the most effective plan to lower your cancer risk also involves plenty of fruits and vegetables and a healthy amount of exercise.

# # #

AICR offers the AICR Nutrition Hotline (1-800-843-8114). Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. EST, Monday-Friday, this free service allows you to ask a registered dietitian your questions regarding diet, nutrition and cancer. AICR's Internet Web address is The American Institute for Cancer Research is the only major cancer charity focusing exclusively on the link between diet, nutrition and cancer. The Institute provides a wide range of consumer education programs that have helped millions of Americans learn to make changes for lower cancer risk. AICR also supports innovative research in cancer prevention and treatment at universities, hospitals and research centers across the U.S. The Institute has provided more than $50 million in funding for research in diet, nutrition and cancer.


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