What’s the Best Anti-Colon-Cancer Diet?

7 min read  |  March 27, 2024  | 

Colorectal cancer, the fourth most common cancer diagnosed in the U.S., has garnered plenty of recent headlines, namely because of the alarming increase in diagnoses in younger adults. Some blame the rise, at least in part, on changes in our eating and exercising. Over the years, the connection between diet and cancers has been well-documented. With colorectal cancer, that connection is even more significant.

One study suggests that our food choices may contribute to 80% of colorectal cancer cases. 

“The colon, unlike other distant sites where cancer can develop, is directly tied to our microbiome and with what we’re putting in our mouths,” says Maria Abreu, M.D., a researcher for Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, part of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine. Dr. Abreu is a gastroenterologist for the University of Miami Health System and the director of the Crohn’s & Colitis Center. 

It’s only logical that if our bodies aren’t being fed the proper nutrients, it’s going to come back to haunt us.

Maria Abreu, M.D.

A poor diet can result in weight gain and obesity, too, and excess body weight, especially around the waist, has been associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. So, it doesn’t surprise Tracy Crane, Ph.D., RDN, co-lead of Sylvester’s Cancer Control Program and director of lifestyle medicine, prevention and digital health, that the rise in obesity has matched the increase in colorectal cancer among the 50-and-under set.

“As our diets have changed and our patterns of exercise have changed, we see these manifested in cancers,” says Dr. Crane. “We’re now surrounded by pre-packaged foods that are easy to make but that, in the end, aren’t healthy for us.”

The good news is that colorectal cancer is highly treatable, and proper nutrition is a choice we can all make — a modifiable risk factor, as researchers call it. 

“We may not be able to change certain risk factors, like genetics, but diet is something we can control,” says Luis C. Garces, M.S., RDN/LD, an oncology dietitian at Sylvester.

Here are recommendations for healthy eating choices:

  • Start by making minor changes to your diet. For example, cut back to two instead of eating meat five days a week. Or switch the sugary snack for a tangerine. “It’s hard to change a person’s diet all at once,” Dr. Abreu says, “but you can do it little by little. Those habits then build up.”  
  • Adopt a diet that fights inflammation, choosing foods such as fruits and vegetables, whole grains, beans and legumes, fish, olive oil, low-fat dairy, and nuts and seeds. One of the better-known anti-inflammatory diets is the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to protect against type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. 

“Think of the big picture,” says Federika Garcia, M.S., RDN, LDN, CNSC, a clinical nutrition manager at Sylvester. “More than just one miracle food or one good meal, it’s what you eat as a whole over time that makes a difference.”

  • Be patient with yourself. “Every day is a new day,” Dr. Crane says. “Start over if you didn’t do as well yesterday. Don’t give up. It’s never a lost cause.”
  • Ditch the ultra-processed foods. These packaged foods have been altered with sugars, salts, hydrogenated oils, chemical preservatives and other items to guarantee longer shelf-life. Examples of these foods include frozen meals, packaged soups, soft drinks, snack chips and sweetened breakfast cereals.
  • Eat plenty of fiber — at least 25 grams for women and 30 grams for men. You can keep track by reading food labels or knowing the fiber content of natural foods. Fiber prevents constipation and helps maintain a healthy gut microbiome. Some suggestions: berries, apples, beans, lentils, cruciferous vegetables, and avocado nuts and seeds.
  • Plan your food shopping and eating. Take your lunch to work, don’t skip a meal, and stock your fridge and pantry with fresh fruit and veggies. Eliminating temptations can help you make good choices. As a dietician, Garces tells patients to cook several side dishes at the beginning of the week and then mix the protein for each meal. “Having a menu for the week can be very helpful and convenient,” she says.
  • Select a variety of fruits and vegetables. “Eat the rainbow,” Dr. Abreu says. “That way, you’re getting different nutrients from each different-colored plant.”
  • Don’t drink alcohol. It irritates the lining of the colon, where most colorectal cancers develop. If you do choose to drink, “do it only occasionally and be aware of portion size,” suggests Dr. Crane. That’s two drinks per day for men or one for women. Again, portion size matters. A serving is 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer and 1.5 ounces of spirits, such as rum, vodka and whiskey.
  • Reduce your intake of red meat and processed deli meats — any meat preserved by curing, salting, or smoking. These are full of compounds that increase the risk of colon cancer. 
  • Eat calcium-rich foods. Dietitian Garcia encourages unflavored Greek yogurt, which also contains natural probiotics and can serve as an excellent source of protein in meals or snacks.

Recipes packed with anti-cancer nutrients:

Avocado Toast (1 serving) (breakfast)

2 pieces whole-wheat toast
1/2 Haas avocado
2 teaspoons olive oil
Dash of crushed red pepper flakes
1 ounce feta cheese

Directions: Toast bread. Once toasted, smash avocado over the toast using a fork and spread. Crumble feta over toast. Drizzle olive oil over avocado and feta. Add crushed red pepper to taste.

Tuna Salad (4 servings) (lunch)

6-ounce can of tuna packed in oil
2 hard-boiled eggs
¼ cup onion, chopped
2 tablespoons sweet pickle relish
¼ cup mayonnaise (or more, if desired)

Directions: Wash the lid of a tuna can. Open the can and drain off the oil. Mix drained tuna with eggs, onion, relish and mayonnaise. Refrigerate until serving.

Rice and Ricotta Stuffed Summer Squash (4 servings) (dinner)

4 small to medium round zucchini squash
2 tablespoons (24 milliliters) olive oil, divided
½ onion, chopped
⅓ cup crushed tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 cups cooked short-grain brown rice
1 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground pepper
2 tablespoons breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons walnuts, chopped

Directions: Fill a large bowl with ice water. Cut each squash in half horizontally. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Place squash halves in boiling water and cook until slightly tender, about 5 minutes. Transfer to ice water to cool, then remove and pat dry. Using a spoon, scoop out and reserve seeds and pulp from each squash, leaving a cavity roughly ¼-inch thick for stuffing.

Preheat oven to 375°F (190°C) and lightly coat a baking sheet with one tablespoon olive oil. Warm one tablespoon of oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat to make the filling. Add onion and sauté until golden brown, about three minutes. Stir in tomatoes, reserved seeds, pulp and basil. Increase heat to high, stirring often until some liquid evaporates, about three minutes. Remove from heat, add rice and ricotta, mix and season with salt and pepper. 

Arrange squash on the prepared baking sheet. Using a spoon, place equal amounts of filling in each squash half. In a small bowl, mix breadcrumbs and walnuts, then sprinkle over squash. Bake until golden brown on top, about 20 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Headshot of Ana Veciana, author (2023)

Ana Veciana-Suarez is a regular contributor to the University of Miami Health System. She is a renowned journalist and author who has worked at The Miami Herald, The Miami News, and The Palm Beach Post. Visit her website at or follow @AnaVeciana on Twitter.

Tags: cancer care in Miami, colon cancer, Dr. Maria Abreu, Dr. Tracy Crane, preventative medicine

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