It is well established that lifestyle plays a role in developing bowel cancer. In fact up to half of all bowel cancer diagnoses can be related to dietary and other lifestyle issues. Making informed choices about diet can improve both general and gut health and can also alleviate the symptoms of IBD or IBS.

For general advice, the NHS eatwell guide gives useful information about what we eat, and how much of each food group contributes to a healthy, balanced diet. Remember you don’t necessarily need to achieve this balance with every meal but try to achieve a balance over a day or even a week.

Red meat, alcohol and bowel cancer

Red meat is a good source of protein and provides vitamins and minerals, such as iron and zinc. However, there is evidence of a link between eating red and processed meat and the risk of bowel cancer. The reason for this is currently unknown but studies have shown that people who eat a lot of these meats are more likely to develop bowel cancer than those who eat small amounts.

What is red meat?

Beef (including hamburgers and minced beef) as well as lamb, pork and steak are all red meat. Quality sausages and goat are also classed as red meat.

What is processed meat?

Processed meat has been smoked, cured or preserved with salt or chemicals. Processed meats include bacon, salami, chorizo, corned beef, pepperoni, pastrami, hot dogs and all types of ham. Some sausages are also considered processed meat.

Processed meats also tend to contain added salts and be higher in fat, so they provide fewer nutrients than unprocessed red meat. Where possible choose small quantities of unprocessed red meats over processed meat, as part of a balanced diet.

It is recommended that an average adult should eat no more than 70g of red or processed meat a day. This is equivalent to 3 thin cut slices of ham, pork or beef, such as in a typical Sunday roast. A quarterpounder beefburger is 78g.

Alcohol and bowel cancer

alcohol and health

There is a proven link between drinking alcohol and bowel cancer. Recent studies have shown that even small amounts of alcohol can increase risk. A study of 500,000 people in 10 European countries established that every two units drunk a day, increased lifetime risk of developing bowel cancer by 8%.

Following an extensive analysis of available data over two years, at the beginning of 2016 the Department of Health revised their recommendations on alcohol to a weekly limit of no more than 14 units for both men and women, and that this should be spread over 2 or more days.

For more information about alcohol and health, including units, current guidance and support for people wishing to manage their drinking visit Drinkaware.

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Bowel cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide. Up to half of all cases can be linked to diet. Research shows that individuals who regularly eat processed or red meat are up to 50% more likely to develop bowel cancer than individuals who avoid these foods altogether. Bowel cancer is considered a ‘westernised disease’ and risk is heightened by the general diet trends in the western world.

If you have been diagnosed with bowel cancer, there are no real changes to diet which are specifically recommended, each individual will have different experiences. However, certain people may experience complications as a result of their diagnosis and find that a change in diet provides relief.

For example, there can be times when a bowel obstruction may be present, which can cause feelings of bloating or constipation. This can be helped by eating a lower fibre diet so fewer stools are passed.

After treatment, specifically if you have had some of your bowel removed, it is likely you will experience more frequent bowel movements or diarrhoea. Also, your bowel may not empty fully and some people experience heightened sensitivity to certain foods, such as fizzy drinks and fruit and vegetables (specifically those which are high in fibre). To keep track of the effect of different foods on your bowel, it may be useful to keep a food diary to monitor symptoms.

Lifestyle after cancer If you’re concerned about bowel cancer or have been diagnosed, Lifestyle After Cancer is a reading recommendation. This book, written by Professor Robert Thomas, covers the latest evidence from across the world on the impact of lifestyle, exercise and diet changes on avoiding cancer, progressing through treatment and for life after cancer.