5 steps towards a healthier gut – Bowel Cancer Awareness Month

According to Bowel Cancer UK, over 42,000 people are diagnosed with bowel cancer every year in the UK. 

And although it affects all ages, more than nine out of ten new cases (94%) are diagnosed in people over 50. Alarmingly, it’s the second biggest cancer killer.

Well, this is the time of year to make a difference. 

April is Bowel Cancer Awareness Month and, with that in mind, we’re outlining the simple steps to keep your gut healthy

1. Maintain a healthy body weight

Keeping a healthy body weight is one of the best ways to reduce your risk of bowel cancer. Not only that, it can help you prevent other types of the disease, e.g. pancreatic, kidney and liver cancer. 

How could obesity cause cancer?

According to Cancer Research UK, this process can occur in four stages:

  1. Fat cells make extra hormones and growth factors
  2. Hormones & growth factors tell cells in our body to divide more frequently
  3. This increases the chance of cancer cells being produced
  4. These can then divide and cause a tumour

But as we get older and become less active, it can be harder to maintain a healthy weight. However, small dietary changes can make a big difference. So try cutting down on sugary snacks, whilst keeping an eye on food labels. You can check your weight is healthy for your age with this calculator from the NHS

But if you are worried about your weight, your GP can offer more advice. 

2. Eat more fibre and less red meat

According to statistics from Cancer Research UK, 28% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are caused by patients not eating enough fibre. What’s more, 13% of cases are caused by the consumption of red and processed meat. 

What counts as red and processed meat?

Red meat includes:

  • Beef
  • Lamb and mutton
  • Pork
  • Veal
  • Venison
  • Goat

Any preserved, cured, salted and smoked meat has been processed. This includes:

  • Bacon
  • Sausages
  • Hot dogs
  • Ham
  • Salami
  • Pepperoni
  • Dried meat, e.g. beef jerky
  • Canned meat, e.g. corned beef

How much red or processed meat is safe to eat?

According to NHS advice, it’s recommended that people who eat more than 90g (cooked weight) of red and processed meat per day cut down to 70g. 

To help, BBC Good Food has put these portion sizes into context:

  • Two thin slices of roast beef = 60g
  • One pork sausage = 50g
  • One portion Bolognese sauce = 60g
  • One lamb chop = 70g
  • One slice ham = 25g
  • 5oz minute steak = 80g

The flip side to this is that increasing the amount of fibre you eat could actually reduce your risk of bowel cancer. 

And it’s not just the classic “five a day” of fruit and vegetables either.

A BMJ study of almost two million people in 2011 found that adding three servings (90g per day) of whole grains to diets could lead to 20% less risk of bowel cancer. 

What foods are classed as whole grains? 

The following food types are classed as whole-grains:

  • Whole-grain bread
  • Whole-grain rye bread
  • Whole grain cereals
  • High fibre cereals
  • Brown rice
  • Oatmeal
  • Porridge

But it’s not just what we eat that we need to be mindful of.

3. Reduce your alcohol intake 

According to Rehab4additcion, various studies have indicated that there’s a relationship between drinking and the risk of bowel cancer. Alarmingly, this is not limited to excessive drinking. A study in 2011 revealed that even having a single drink per day (around 10g of alcohol) was enough to increase the risk. 

How does alcohol put us at risk of cancer?

When you drink alcohol, four things happen as it’s metabolised in the body:

  1. Ethanol from the alcohol is broken down into acetaldehyde – a toxic chemical and potential carcinogen. This can damage your body’s DNA and proteins
  2. It also generates reactive oxygen species. Through oxidation, these molecules can damage DNA, lipids and proteins
  3. The body struggles to digest and absorb various nutrients, e.g. Vitamin A, D, E and B
  4. It also increases the body’s estrogen levels; estrogen is linked to the development of breast cancer 

With that in mind, it’s important to try and limit your alcohol consumption where possible. 

And other lifestyle habits can put us at risk as well.

4. Quit smoking

It’s estimated that 7% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are linked to tobacco smoking. And although this doesn’t seem like a huge percentage, the risk increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day.

What is the link between smoking and bowel cancer?

Smokers are more likely to develop non-cancerous growths in the bowl (polyps) and these, if left undetected, can become cancerous over time. 

If you’re trying to stop smoking and need some help, Smokefree has some helpful resources. Alternatively, consult your doctor for more advice and support. 

5. Get a bowel cancer screening

The good news is that if you’re aged 60-74 and live in England, you’re eligible for a free bowel cancer screening kit. All you need to do is make sure that you’re registered with a GP and you’ll be posted a kit every two years. 

But if you’re 75+, you can ask for a kit every two years by phoning the free bowel cancer screening helpline on 0800 707 60 60.

For more help and advice, give us a call: 0300 333 6511 or email [email protected]