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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 dietitian Roger Warn and surgeon Dr. C. Randall Cooper 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 cells that line the colon or rectum can become abnormal and, over time, change into cancer," explains Mr. Warn.
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a condition that causes cramping, gas, and diarrhea or constipation. While it's a chronic disease, it can usually be managed through diet adjustments. It shouldn't be confused with inflammatory bowel disease, as it hasn't been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer.
  • Diverticulosis shows itself in infected or inflamed pouches that have formed in your colon wall. According to the National Institutes of Health, the chances of colorectal cancer after an acute case of diverticulosis increases 44 fold.
  • Colorectal Cancer can be caused by any of the above conditions except IBS, but you don't need to have one of them to get this form of cancer. "We know that obesity has a correlation with colon cancer," notes Dr. Cooper. 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?

"More than half of all colorectal cancer cases and deaths are attributed to modifiable risk factors, including excessive body weight," says Mr. Warn.

"The proper diet to avoid colon issues is pretty straightforward," notes Dr. Cooper. "What's good for the rest of your body is good for your colon." To this end, both Mr. Warn and Dr. Cooper recommend a plant-based, high-fiber diet and avoiding red meat, fatty foods, and sugar. "We suggest aiming for higher fiber intakes of about 30 grams per day," notes Mr. Warn. "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 healthy habits to reduce 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 people 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, including stool tests and colonoscopy. According to Dr. Cooper, “Colonoscopy is the preferred method of screening 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."