Fifty Times Lower Colon Cancer Risk

Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States, after lung cancer. The rates of lung cancer around the world vary by a factor of 10. If there was nothing we could do to prevent lung cancer—if it just happened at random—we’d assume that the rates everywhere would be about the same. But since there’s such a huge variation in rates, it seems like there’s probably some external cause. Indeed, we now know smoking is responsible for 90% of lung cancer cases. If we don’t want to die of the number-one cancer killer, we can throw 90% of our risk out the window just by not smoking.

There’s an even bigger variation around the world for colon cancer. As discussed in Solving a Colon Cancer Mystery, it appears colon cancer doesn’t just happen, something makes it happen. If our lungs can get filled with carcinogens from smoke, maybe our colons are getting filled with carcinogens from food? Researchers from the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Limpopo sought to answer the question, “Why do African Americans get more colon cancer than native Africans?” Why study Africans? Because colon cancer is extremely rare in native African populations, more than 50 times lower than rates of Americans, white or black.

It’s the fiber, right? The first to describe the low rates of colon cancer in native Africans, Dr. Denis Burkitt ascribed it to their staple diet traditionally high in whole grains and, consequently, high in fiber content. We seem to get a 10% reduction in risk for every 10 grams of fiber we eat a day. If it’s a 1% drop for each gram, and native Africans are eating upwards of 100 grams a day, it could explain why colon cancer is so rare in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wait a second. The modern African diet is highly processed and low in fiber, yet there has been no dramatic increase in colon cancer incidence. Their diet today has such a low fiber content because most populations now depend on commercially produced refined cornmeal. We’re not just talking low fiber intake, we’re talking United States of America low, down around half the recommended daily allowance. Yet colon disease in Africa is still about 50 times less common than in the United States.  

Maybe it’s because native Africans are thinner and exercise more? No, they’re not, and no, they don’t. If anything, their physical activity levels may now be even lower than Americans’. So if they’re sedentary like us and eating mostly refined carbs, few whole plant foods, and little fiber like us, why do they have 50 times less colon cancer than we do? There is one difference. The diet of both African Americans and Caucasian Americans is rich in meat, whereas the native Africans’ diet is so low in meat and saturated fat they have total cholesterol levels averaging 139 mg/dL, compared to over 200 mg/dL in the United States.

They may not get a lot of fiber anymore, but they continue to minimize meat and animal fat consumption, which supports other evidence indicating the most powerful determinants of colon cancer risk may be meat and animal fat intake levels. So why do Americans get more colon cancer than Africans? Maybe the rarity of colon cancer in Africans is not the fiber, but their low animal product consumption.

Although opinions diverge as to whether cholesterol, animal fat, or animal protein is most responsible for the increased colon cancer risk, given that all three have been proven to have carcinogenic properties, it may not really matter which component is worse, as a diet laden in one is usually laden in the others.

I’ve previously suggested phytates may play a critical role as well (Phytates for the Prevention of Cancer). Resistant starch may be another player. Since native Africans cool down their corn porridge, some of the starch can crystallize and effectively turn into fiber. (This is the same reason pasta salad and potato salad better feed our gut bacteria than starchy dishes served hot.) I touch on it briefly in Bowel Wars: Hydrogen Sulfide vs. Butyrate. Resistant starch may also help explain Beans and the Second Meal Effect. And for even more, see Resistant Starch & Colon Cancer and Getting Starch to Take the Path of Most Resistance.

Fiber may just be a marker for healthier eating since it’s only found concentrated in unprocessed plant foods. So the apparent protection afforded by high fiber diets may derive from whole food plant-based nutrition rather than the fiber itself (so fiber supplements would not be expected to provide the same protection). Here are some videos that found protective associations with higher fiber diets:

What might be in animal products that can raise cancer risk? Here’s a smattering:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

What Animal Protein Does in Your Colon

There’s a take-off of the industry slogan, “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” – “Beef: It’s What’s Rotting in Your Colon.” I saw this on a shirt once with some friends and I was such the party pooper—no pun intended—explaining to everyone that meat is fully digested in the small intestine, and never makes it down into the colon. It’s no fun hanging out with biology geeks.

But I was wrong!

It’s been estimated that with a typical Western diet, up to 12 grams of protein can escape digestion, and when it reaches the colon, it can be turned into toxic substances like ammonia. This degradation of undigested protein in the colon is called putrefaction; so, a little meat can actually end up putrefying in our colon. The problem is that some of the by-products of this putrefaction process can be toxic.

It’s generally accepted that carbohydrate fermentation—the fiber and resistant starches that reach our colon—results in beneficial effects because of the generation of short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, whereas protein fermentation is considered detrimental. Protein fermentation mainly occurs in the lower end of colon and results in the production of potentially toxic metabolites. That may be why colorectal cancer and ulcerative colitis tend to happen lower down—because that’s where the protein is putrefying.

Probably the simplest strategy to reduce the potential harm of protein fermentation is to reduce dietary protein intake. But the accumulation of these toxic by-products of protein metabolism may be attenuated by the fermentation of undigested plant matter. In my video, Bowel Wars: Hydrogen Sulfide vs. Butyrate, you can see that a study out of Australia showed that if you give people foods containing resistant starch, you can block the accumulation of potentially harmful by-products of protein metabolism. Resistant starch is resistant to small intestine digestion; and so, it makes it down to our colon where it can feed our good bacteria. Resistant starch is found in cooked beans, split peas, chickpeas, lentils, raw oatmeal, and cooled cooked pasta (like macaroni salad). Apparently, the more starch that ends up in the colon, the less ammonia that is produced.

Of course, there’s protein in plants too. The difference is that animal proteins tend to have more sulfur-containing amino acids like methionine, which can be turned into hydrogen sulfide in our colon. Hydrogen sulfide is the rotten egg gas that may play a role in the development of the inflammatory bowel disease, ulcerative colitis (see Preventing Ulcerative Colitis with Diet).

The toxic effects of hydrogen sulfide appear to be a result of blocking the ability of the cells lining our colon from utilizing butyrate, which is what our good bacteria make from the fiber and resistant starch we eat. It’s like this constant battle in our colon between the bad metabolites of protein, hydrogen sulfide, and the good metabolites of carbohydrates, butyrate. Using human colon samples, researchers were able to show that the adverse effects of sulfide could be reversed by butyrate. So, we can either cut down on meat, eat more plants, or both.

There are two ways hydrogen sulfide can be produced, though. It’s mainly present in our large intestine as a result of the breakdown of sulfur-containing proteins, but the rotten egg gas can also be generated from inorganic sulfur preservatives like sulfites and sulfur dioxide.

Sulfur dioxide is used as a preservative in dried fruit, and sulfites are added to wines. We can avoid sulfur additives by reading labels or by just choosing organic, since they’re forbidden from organic fruits and beverages by law.

More than 35 years ago, studies started implicating sulfur dioxide preservatives in the exacerbation of asthma. This so-called “sulfite-sensitivity” seems to affect only about 1 in 2,000 people; so, I recommended those with asthma avoid it, but otherwise I considered the preservative harmless. I am now not so sure, and advise people to avoid it when possible.

Cabbage family vegetables naturally have some sulfur compounds, but thankfully, after following more than a hundred thousand women for over 25 years, researchers concluded cruciferous vegetables were not associated with elevated colitis risk.

Because of animal protein and processed food intake, the standard American diet may contain five or six times more sulfur than a diet centered around unprocessed plant foods. This may help explain the rarity of inflammatory bowel disease among those eating traditional whole food, plant-based diets.

How could companies just add things like sulfur dioxide to foods without adequate safety testing? See Who Determines if Food Additives are Safe? For other additives that may be a problem, see Titanium Dioxide & Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Is Carrageenan Safe?

More on this epic fermentation battle in our gut in Stool pH and Colon Cancer.

Does the sulfur-containing amino acid methionine sound familiar? You may remember it from such hits as Starving Cancer with Methionine Restriction and Methionine Restriction as a Life Extension Strategy.

These short-chain fatty acids released by our good bacteria when we eat fiber and resistant starches are what may be behind the second meal effect: Beans and the Second Meal Effect.

I mentioned ulcerative colitis. What about the other inflammatory bowel disease, Crohn’s?  See Preventing Crohn’s Disease With Diet and Dietary Treatment of Crohn’s Disease.

 In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations: