Colon cancer impacts tens of thousands of Americans each year, but the right diet could lower your risk of being affected.

In the past few years, there have been exciting breakthroughs in colon cancer research. Recently, researchers at the USC Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center discovered that drinking coffee — decaf, instant, whichever you prefer — decreases your risk of colon cancer.

Still, colon cancer is the third most prevalent cancer in the United States, which is why any step you can take to minimize your risk of developing it might be worth the effort.

Colon cancer occurs in the large intestine, which comprises the last section of your digestive system. The cancer often begins as a polyp, which typically is benign but may become malignant over time. The most common symptoms include an unexplained change in bowel habits, consistent abdominal pain, sudden weight loss and blood in the stool.

As the colon is an essential part of your digestive system, it shouldn’t be a surprise that experts look to certain dietary habits as risk factors for colon cancer. One popular area of research is fiber. Large-scale studies have found a correlation between the Western diet — which tends to be high in fat and low in fiber — and increased risk of colon cancer.

“A diet high in red meat and processed meats increases your risk of getting colon cancer, while a diet rich in fiber lessens your risk of the disease,” said Jacques Van Dam, MD, professor of medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and director of the USC Digestive Health Center at Keck Medicine of USC.

One potential reason for this is that a high-fiber diet promotes a healthy weight, which in turn lowers your risk for many types of cancer. Plus, fiber passes quickly through the colon, meaning that it may flush certain cancer-causing compounds from your system. It may even change those compounds, making them less harmful.

On the other hand, large amounts of red meat (as well as processed meat) have been linked to a higher risk of colon cancer. It’s a good idea to replace some of your meat-based meals with fiber-rich foods, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

Alongside a healthy diet, experts also recommend physical activity and regular cancer screenings. Exercise has been found to lower your risk of most types of cancer, including colon cancer, and the American Cancer Society recommends screenings for those over 50 to aid in early detection. If you’re in your 50s and have not had a screening, see your primary care physician to learn which tests you may need to take. Being proactive could make all the difference.

By Deanna Pai

If you’re a cancer patient in Southern California, make an appointment with one of our cancer specialists. To schedule an appointment, call (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or visit keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.