Skip to content

Changing Diet Has Big Effects On Colon Cancer Risk

This study confirms all my recent posts on the importance of fiber, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, seeds, nuts, and legumes for beneficial gut bacteria health (have to feed them!). This study found dramatic changes in the colon (specifically in the colonic mucosa) from dietary changes in as little as 2 weeks. In the study the Americans ate the typical low-fat, high fiber diet of South Africa which included foods such as hi-maize corn fritters, beans, salmon croquettes, spinach, red pepper and onions, homemade tater tots, mango slices,okra, tomatoes, corn muffins, black-eyed peas, and pineapple. Meanwhile, people in South Africa ate an “American” high-fat, low-fiber diet: Foods included beef sausage links and pancakes for breakfast; hamburger and French fries for lunch; and meatloaf and rice for dinner. From Science Daily:

Diet swap has dramatic effects on colon cancer risk for Americans and Africans

Scientists have found dramatic effects on risk factors for colon cancer when American and African volunteers swapped diets for just two weeks. Western diets, high in protein and fat but low in fibre, are thought to raise colon cancer risk compared with African diets high in fibre and low in fat and protein.The new study, published in Nature Communications today, confirms that a high fibre diet can substantially reduce risk, and shows that bacteria living in the gut play an important role in this effect.

Colon cancer is the fourth commonest cause of death from cancer worldwide, accounting for over 600,000 deaths per year. Colon cancer rates are much higher in the western world than in Africa or the Far East, yet in the United States, African Americans shoulder the greatest burden of the disease.

To investigate the possible roles of diet and gut bacteria, an international team including scientists from the University of Pittsburgh and Imperial College London carried out a study with a group of 20 African American volunteers and another group of 20 participants from rural South Africa. The two groups swapped diets under tightly controlled conditions for two weeks.... At the start, when the groups had been eating their normal diets, almost half of the American subjects had polyps -- abnormal growths in the bowel lining that may be harmless but can progress to cancer. None of the Africans had these abnormalities.

After two weeks on the African diet, the American group had significantly less inflammation in the colon and reduced biomarkers of cancer risk. In the African group, measurements indicating cancer risk dramatically increased after two weeks on the western diet.

"The findings suggest that people can substantially lower their risk of colon cancer by eating more fibre. This is not new in itself but what is really surprising is how quickly and dramatically the risk markers can switch in both groups following diet change. These findings also raise serious concerns that the progressive westernization of African communities may lead to the emergence of colon cancer as a major health issue."

Professor Stephen O'Keefe at the University of Pittsburgh, who directed the study, said: "Studies on Japanese migrants to Hawaii have shown that it takes one generation of westernization to change their low incidence of colon cancer to the high rates observed in native Hawaiians. Our study suggests that westernization of the diet induces changes in biomarkers of colon cancer risk in the colonic mucosa within two weeks. Perhaps even more importantly, a change in diet from a westernized composition to a 'traditional African' high fiber low fat diet reduced these biomarkers of cancer risk within two weeks, indicating that it is likely never too late to change your diet to change your risk of colon cancer."

The study found that a major reason for the changes in cancer risk was the way in which the bacteria in the gut -- known as the microbiome -- altered their metabolism to adapt to the new diet. In the American group, the researchers found that the African diet led to an increase in the production of butyrate, a byproduct of fibre metabolism that has important anti-cancer effects.

The American subjects switched to a low-fat, high-fibre diet based on that of rural Africans in KwaZulu-Natal.Photograph: brianafrica / Alamy/Alamy