The colon, also known as the large intestine, is an essential part of your digestive tract. It plays the final role in digestion before the leftover material moves to the rectum. Because it plays such a vital role in the body, it’s important to maintain your colon health.

Below, Summit Health Gastroenterologist Dr. Laurel Hartwell took some time to speak about colon conditions and the healthy diet choices that promote colon health.

What Are Potential Colon Problems?

There are many different colon diseases that people can face:

  • Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is an autoimmune disorder that causes inflammation in your colon. Both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are forms of IBD. It’s a harmful condition that puts people at risk because “the chronic inflammation can lead to scarring and damage the bowel over time,” explains Dr. Hartwell. While this condition cannot be prevented or treated by diet alone, dietary changes can substantially reduce symptoms.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition that causes cramping, gas, and diarrhea or constipation. While it is a chronic disease, it can usually be managed through diet adjustments. It shouldn’t be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, as it has not been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. “The recent development of the low FODMAP diet has really represented a breakthrough in IBS therapy,” notes Dr. Hartwell. “If you are considering this, I strongly recommend a consult with our experienced Summit Health dietitians to help guide you through this. Our department works very closely with them, and they are fantastic.”
  • Diverticulosis is a condition where small sacs or pouches form and push outward through weak spots in the colon wall. This can manifest as diverticulitis, where the pouches become infected and inflamed and cause abdominal pain.  Diverticulosis can be managed with dietary changes, including increasing the amount of fiber in the diet.
  • Colorectal cancer can be caused by a combination of genetic and environmental risk factors. Environmental risk factors include things like diet, alcohol, and tobacco. “We know that obesity has a correlation with colon cancer,” notes Dr. Hartwell. That means that making healthy lifestyle changes is key to helping prevent colorectal cancer.

What Steps Can I Take in My Diet to Prevent Colorectal Cancer?

A number of studies have clearly linked a diet high in vegetable and fruit fiber to protection from colon and rectal cancer. Though not as conclusive, other studies have suggested an association between the consumption of red meats and processed meats (such as sausages, bacon, jerky and smokes or cured meats) with colon cancer. “The proper diet to avoid colon issues is pretty straightforward,” notes Dr. Hartwell. “What’s good for the rest of your body is good for your colon.” To this end, Dr. Hartwell recommends a plant-based, high-fiber diet and reducing red meat, fatty foods, and sugar. “It is suggested to aim for higher fiber intakes of about 30 grams per day,” notes Dr. Hartwell “This is compared to the average American intake of 17 grams per day.”

Diet recommendations include eating:

  • Beans and legumes
  • Raw fruit and vegetables
  • Whole grains

In addition to a healthful diet, there is growing evidence that regular physical activity, avoidance of tobacco and excessive alcohol use, and maintaining a healthy weight can help reduce your risk of colon cancer.

The Importance of Colon Cancer Screening

In addition to health habits reducing the risk of colon cancer, it is important to undergo colon cancer screening at the appropriate age. Recently the age at which to begin screening was reduced from 50 to 45 years for patients at average risk. For patients with other risk factors such as IBD or a family history of cancer, screening may be recommended at an earlier age.

There are various tests available for colon cancer screening including stool tests and colonoscopy. “I recommend you reach out to your primary care provider to discuss your options,” suggests Dr. Hartwell.  “The best colon cancer screening test is one that you are most likely to follow through on.” According to Dr. Hartwell, “One reason to consider colonoscopy over the stool-based methods is because it is also a preventive procedure. Colon cancer grows from polyps in your colon. Colonoscopy is a great tool because it allows us to find the polyps before they turn into cancer, thus preventing cancers from occurring in the first place. And when cancer is found early, it’s treatable and outcomes are much better.”