Exercise and nutrition facts about colorectal cancer risk

A young African woman standing with her eyes closed in her kitchen at home and drinking an organic smoothie with a reusable straw.


Discover the truth behind common diet and exercise misconceptions about colorectal cancer risk.


By Vicki Barber, Registered Dietitian, Oncology Nutrition Specialist, Nuvance Health


Is a high protein, low carbohydrate diet the best for weight loss? Are all smoothies healthful? Is exercise only for weight loss? As a registered dietitian and oncology nutrition specialist, I want everyone to know the truth about these common diet and exercise misconceptions, especially when it comes to colorectal cancer risk.


Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer diagnosed in the United States. This type of cancer that develops in the colon or rectum has been increasing in people younger than age 50 over the last 30 years. Although we need more evidence, there is a link between an unhealthy diet and a sedentary lifestyle with colorectal cancer.


Here is the truth about eating healthy and exercising to reduce colorectal cancer risk.



Misconception #1: High protein, low carbohydrate diets are most healthy for weight loss and chronic disease prevention.

Nutrition facts about protein and carbs


Red meat and processed meats


What you eat affects your digestive health and colorectal cancer risk because the colon and rectum are part of the gastrointestinal tract. According to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR), there is strong evidence that eating a diet high in red meat increases colorectal cancer risk. Red meat includes beef, pork and lamb. Studies have also shown a link between processed meats such as bacon, deli meats, hot dogs and sausages with colorectal cancer.


If you eat red meat, aim to consume fewer than three portions or about 12 ounces to 18 ounces cooked per week. It is okay if you love bacon with Sunday brunch or a hot dog at a baseball game because it is important to enjoy your life. Just aim to eat these types of processed meats infrequently by saving them for special occasions versus daily meals.




Carbohydrates have gotten a bad reputation from popular low-carb diet trends — but we need carbs! Complex carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy. There is probable evidence that a plant-based diet rich in fiber, fruits, vegetables and whole grains can have a positive impact in reducing colorectal cancer risk.


Diet modifications to enjoy meat and carbohydrates in moderation


The plate method can take the guesswork out of meals so you can enjoy meat if you eat it while also following a plant-based diet. Cover your plate with two-thirds plant-based foods, and one-third with plant or animal protein. Aim to eat about 25 grams of fiber per day for women and 38 grams per day for men. If possible, avoid cured, smoked or salted meats.


Aim to eat complex, whole carbohydrates rather than processed carbohydrates with added sugar. Examples of healthy carbohydrates include barley, brown rice, oatmeal and natural foods made with whole grains. Processed carbohydrates with added sugars include packaged cereal, white bread, pasta and rice, and sweets such as cake and pastries. 


Misconception #2: All smoothies and juices made with fruits and vegetables are healthy.

Nutrition facts smoothies and juices


Not all fruit- and vegetable-based smoothies and juices are created equal. Mass produced smoothies and juices you can get at a café or grocery store may have excess amounts of added sugars and they may be high in calories. Added sugars and high-calorie beverages and foods can contribute to being overweight or obese. According to the AICR, there is strong evidence that excess body fat is a convincing cause of colorectal cancer.


Diet modifications to enjoy healthy smoothies and juices


Smoothies and juices can be a good way to get healthful nutrients, including antioxidants, phytochemicals and vitamins that can reduce the risk of cancer. Foods high in antioxidants are brightly colored fruits and veggies, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole grains. Phytochemicals are healthy substances found in fruits, veggies, grains, nuts and seeds.



If you enjoy smoothies, make them at home so you know what you are putting in them. Use fresh or frozen whole fruits and veggies, unsweetened almond or oat milk, low fat milk or yogurt, or even just water in your smoothie.


If you love fruit juice, you can invest in a juicer to make your own juice with fresh fruits and veggies; although, I recommend that you eat whole fruits and veggies instead of drinking your nutrients.


If making your own smoothies and juices does not fit into your lifestyle, review the ingredients before buying these beverages. Look for recipes with no added sugars and few ingredients.



Misconception #3: I do not need to exercise if I am a healthy body weight.

Facts about exercise and cancer risk


According to the AICR, you are at increased risk of colorectal cancer if you are not physically active. Besides helping you maintain a healthy weight; regular exercise has many benefits including improving brain health and building bone and muscle strength.


Lifestyle modification to incorporate exercise into your daily routine


The American Cancer Society recommends adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week, which is 30 minutes a day five times per week. If that is difficult for you, break it up into smaller segments — for example, be physically active for 10 minutes, three times per day. For motivation, find an activity you love, workout with a friend, join a gym or take group fitness classes.



The bottom line: With colorectal cancer on the rise in younger people, it is important to know ways to reduce your risk. With the link between diet and exercise and colorectal cancer, you can take control of your health by knowing facts about meat consumption, smoothies and juices and exercise. Aim to eat a colorful plant-based diet, use whole fruits and veggies in your smoothies and avoid added sugars, and exercise daily for your overall good health.


Need a colonoscopy screening for colorectal cancer? Find a gastroenterologist near you.