How can I prevent bowel cancer?

Although some bowel cancers are caused by genetic factors or other diseases, there are several lifestyle choices that you can make every day to reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer.

Eating well, being physically active, limiting alcohol, maintaining a healthy weight and not smoking can all reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer. Here are some simple steps you can take.

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Aim for a healthy weight

Being a healthy weight helps reduce your risk of developing bowel cancer. This is particularly a problem when the extra weight is around your waist and vital organs rather than your hips and thighs.

There are two ways to classify overweight and obesity. Body Mass Index (BMI) estimates how healthy your weight is in relation to your height. It is calculated by dividing your weight in kilograms by your height in metres squared.

Calculate your BMI here.

Healthy weight is defined as a BMI of 18-24.9. Overweight is a BMI of between 25 and 29.9, and obesity is a BMI over 30.

Waist circumference gives an indication of whether you are carrying weight around your stomach. A waist circumference of less than 80cm for women and less than 94cm for men is considered healthy. Anything above this increases your risk of bowel cancer.

To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, we recommend regular physical activity and eating according to your energy needs. Eating moderate portion sizes and making fruit, vegetables and high fibre cereals the basis of your diet may help.

Read more about maintaining a healthy weight

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Eat plenty of fibre from wholegrain cereals and fruit and vegetables

Eating a diet rich in fibre from plant-based foods will help prevent bowel cancer.

Fibre is the indigestible parts of plants, and is found in wholegrain and wholemeal breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes. Sometimes fibre is added to white cereals, such as bread or pasta, to increase fibre content.

As the benefits of fibre may be from the combination of nutrients working together, for example, fruit and vegetables not only give you fibre, but vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that help to prevent cancer, we recommend that whole foods be consumed rather than a dietary fibre supplement.

We recommend people eat at least four serves of wholegrain or wholemeal foods every day (or ensure at least half the breads and cereals you eat are wholegrain or wholemeal) and at least two serves of fruit and five serves of vegetables per day.

Read more about fibre and wholegrain cereals and fruit and vegetables

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Be physically active

Being physically active and participating in regular exercise will help to prevent bowel cancer. As well, regular physical activity helps prevent weight gain and overweight and obesity, which are risk factors for bowel cancer in their own right.

Research suggests that 60 minutes or more of moderate activity (like brisk walking, mowing the lawn or medium-paced swimming) or 30 minutes or more of vigorous activity (like aerobics, running or fast cycling) daily will help to reduce your risk of cancer.

Being more active in everyday tasks can increase your overall level of physical activity too. For example, take the stairs instead of the lift. Choose activities you enjoy and that fit into your routine. If you are inactive, any increase in activity is helpful.

Read more about physical activity

Limit red and processed meats

A diet high in red meat and particularly processed meats increases your chances of developing bowel cancer.

Red meats include beef, veal, pork, mutton and lamb. Lean red meat is an important source of iron, zinc, vitamin B12 and protein. There is no reason to cut meat completely from your diet, but there are steps you can take to reduce your risk.

Processed meats are those that have undergone a method of processing other than boning, slicing, dicing, mincing, or freezing. This includes salami, ham, bacon, sausages and frankfurts. Processed meats are often high in salt, saturated fat and preservatives.

We recommend eating only moderate amounts of fresh, lean red meat – no more than 65-100g of cooked red meat, 3-4 times a week – and limiting or avoiding processed meat.

Read more about meat and cancer

Limit alcohol

Drinking alcohol increases your risk of developing bowel cancer, especially for men. Alcohol also contributes to the amount of energy (kilojoules) you consume, so it can contribute to weight gain, another risk factor for bowel cancer.

We recommend limiting your alcohol consumption. If you drink, limit your consumption to two standard drinks per day. A standard drink is equal to a 100mL glass of wine, a 30mL nip of spirits or about 260mL full-strength beer (just under a middy).

Read more about alcohol and cancer

Stop smoking

Tobacco smoking (i.e. using cigarettes, cigars and pipes) is a known cause of bowel cancer. Starting smoking at a younger age and smoking for two or more decades increases bowel cancer risk.

If you’re a smoker, stopping smoking completely will reduce your risk of bowel and other cancers. In fact not smoking is one of the best things you can do to improve your health. The earlier you stop smoking the better, but quitting at any age will benefit your health.

Read more about how to quit smoking and the health risks of tobacco smoking

This information was last reviewed in February 2015
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