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What does milk have in common with garlic, calcium, physical activity and foods containing dietary fibre? There is strong evidence for all five factors showing they reduce the risk of colorectal cancer. 

That is the conclusion of the report from the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research. The most convincing evidence for reducing colon cancer risk is found with physical activity and foods containing dietary fibre. The report also points out that there is consistent and very good evidence that milk, calcium and garlic all probably protect against colon cancer.

The World Cancer Research Fund, a global leader linking organizations involved in cancer research and cancer prevention, has a continuous update program (CUP) to analyze research on how diet and other lifestyle factors influence cancer. Their findings are used to inform everyone from policy makers to members of the public about the latest research and recommendations to prevent cancer. 

The report on colorectal cancer is based on a systematic review of the research literature done by an Expert Panel of scientists. In their review, they noted that 8 out of 10 cohort studies found decreased risk of colon cancer as milk intake increased. The report was published in 2011.

"There is enough evidence to conclude that milk probably protects against colorectal cancer."

The World Cancer Research Fund Report, 2011

While the evidence regarding other dairy products is limited, several large studies suggest that they may also reduce colorectal cancer risk. The CUP Expert Panel is scheduled to discuss the new evidence on colorectal cancer in 2016.

The Expert Panel ranks the various risk factors. Their conclusions regarding factors decreasing risk of colon cancer can be found in the table below.

Factors decreasing risk of colon cancer

physical activity
foods containing dietary fibre
non-starchy vegetables
Limited—no conclusion
glycemic index
folate, vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium
low fat 
dietary pattern 

World Cancer Research Fund, 2011

What is it about milk?

The protective effect of milk is probably due in part to its calcium content. But many other components in milk, such as vitamin D, butyric acid and conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) could also play a role.

Should you take a calcium supplement? Many authorities suggest sticking with food. Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition (PEN), the global resource for nutrition practice sums it up this way: “As there is currently insufficient evidence to recommend calcium or vitamin D supplements for preventing colorectal cancer, individuals should strive to meet their nutritional needs by following the dietary recommendations outlined in national guidelines.”1 The Colorectal Cancer Association of Canada concurs, stating that adults should get their recommended amounts of calcium from food.

Considering this evidence, it makes sense to add or replace some foods in your diet with ones that may protect you from colon cancer

Here are 5 simple tips to reduce your risk of colon cancer

  • Eat the recommended amount of fruits and veggies every day. That’s 7–10 servings/day for adults, and a sure way to get plenty of fibre.
    - Think fruit for snacks.
    - Sauté veggies with garlic—tasty! And it’s easy to get 2–3 servings of veggies this way.
    - A serving is only ½ cup, so double and triple up your portions at meals.
  • Aim for at least 4 servings of whole grains during the day for even more fibre.
    - Choose whole grain bread for sandwiches—that’s 2 servings.
    - Choose whole grain cereals like oatmeal.
    - Keep whole grain crackers like rye crisp bread in your cupboard to have handy for snacks.
  • Make dried beans a regular part of your meals for a final fibre boost.
    - Keep canned beans handy so you can add them to soups and salads.
    - Wrap a tortilla around beans, salsa and some grated cheese for a quick meal. 
    - Keep hummus ready-made for sandwich spreads and dips. Try this original recipe for White Bean & Feta Hummus
  • Serve milk with meals.
    - Be maverick—order milk when eating out. Each cup of milk counts as a serving, and adults need 2–3 servings of milk or milk alternatives in a day.
    - Cook with milk. Try soups such as Springtime Chicken, Spinach and Snap Pea Soup.
    - Invest in one of the new insulated drink containers to bring milk along for lunch.
  • Go DIY
    - Use milk to make yogurt, paneer or kefir.

Follow these expert tips and you are well on your way to protecting yourself from colon cancer!

by Sydney Massey, MPH, RD

1. Dietitians of Canada. Do calcium and milk products impact colorectal cancer risk? Does vitamin D impact colorectal cancer risk? In: PEN: Practice-based Evidence in nutrition® 2012 Oct 10 [cited 2016 Feb 23]. Available from: Access only by subscription. Free trials available. Click Subscribe on log in page.  

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