Learn From the Exception: Colon Cancer

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In the 1960’s, Dr. Ernst Wynder proposed that high fat diets were a major cause of colon cancer. Today, things do not seem quite so simple. Clearly there is something about a typical Western diet that promotes co­lon cancer, the number one cancer killer in nonsmokers. In general, epidemiological studies suggest that diets higher in animal products and fat (especially red meats and cholesterol) promote colon cancer. In contrast, plant-based diets lower in fat and higher in fiber seem to protect against colon cancer.
Eskimos are one big exception. Their native diet consists largely of sea mammals and fish with little fiber and no dairy products. Eskimos get a lot of vitamin D from the fatty fish they eat and plenty of calcium from the bones of these fish. And Eskimo translated literally means “eats raw meat” so they do not eat meats cooked at high temperatures which produce carcinogens like heterocyclic aromatic amines. Further, the Eskimos’ diet has a high ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. In Westernized populations where colon cancer is more prevalent, this ratio is reversed. Exercise is also associated with less colon cancer and Eskimos are
obviously much more active than other Americans.
The connection between diet and colon cancer is not likely to prove simple. Nevertheless, a diet which contains plenty of fruit, vegetables and whole grains plus moderate amounts of nonfat dairy and a little fatty fish is likely to be very helpful in preventing colon cancer. Regular exercise coupled with avoiding excesses of: alcohol, red meat and “junk foods” devoid of fiber, nutrients and phytochemicals would also be prudent. The use of calcium supplements, aspirin and perhaps fish oil supplements, folate and vitamin D might be considered in those with a strong family history of cancer and/or intestinal polyps. More research is needed on these interventions to better quantify the risk/benefit profile.

• Dr. Jay Kenney, PhD, RD, FACN.

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