Harvard Health Letter

Colon cancer risk: A refresher course

Colon cancer is one of the most common forms of cancer but also one of the most preventable. Dr. Robert S. Sandler, a gastroenterologist at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, published an excellent review of colon cancer prevention. Dr. Stephen Goldfinger, a founding editor of the Health Letter who remains an active member of our editorial board, brought it to our attention. We've depended on Dr. Sandler's review to create our own little refresher course on colon cancer prevention.

Increased risk

Meat. There's a lot of evidence from a wide range of studies that eating red meat (beef, pork, and lamb) or processed meat (hot dogs, sausages, certain cold cuts) increases the risk of colon cancer. Less clear are the reasons. One possible explanation is that cooking meat at high temperatures produces substances (heterocyclic amines, for example) with cancer-promoting properties. Avoiding charred red meat is often suggested as a way to reduce colon cancer risk.

Abdominal fat. Obesity is a risk factor, but the evidence is more consistent for overweight men than it is for overweight women. Why? Perhaps because men are more likely than women to put weight on around the middle, and the abdominal fat that expands the waist is more metabolically active than fat deposits elsewhere. Some aspects of that metabolic activity may promote cancer.

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