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A new study suggests that African diets, comprising an abundance of fruits and vegetables, high fibre foods, beans and cornmeal, and little meat, could keep away this health problem.

Colon cancer is the third most common cancer in the world, with almost 1.4 million new cases diagnosed every year. In countries like the US, the rates of colon cancer are markedly high, in contrast to the relatively low colon cancer risk in African countries. Colon cancer claims over 60,000 lives each year, more so in the West than in Africa and the Eastern countries.

Research has shown that certain foods and beverages can significantly increase the chances of contracting this disease. These include processed meat, red meat and alcohol. Being obese, storing fat in the abdominal region and adult attained height also increase colon cancer risk, while regular exercise and consuming high fibre foods have been found to have a protective affect. Certain foods, like garlic, milk and calcium-rich foods also seem to have a beneficial effect, though cheese, despite being a dairy food, seems to have the opposite effect. A new study published in Nature Communications, indicates that the African diet may be an ideal way to keep this type of cancer at bay.

The study involved 40 volunteers, 20 of which were African-Americans in Pittsburgh and 20 of which were rural South Africans. Volunteers were asked to switch diets for a two-week period. The African Americans consumed traditional African fare, comprising an abundance of fruits and vegetables, high fibre foods, beans and cornmeal, and little meat. The Africans, on the contrary, were placed on the typical fast-food diet, consuming foods such as fried chicken, hamburgers and French fries. At the end of the test period, colonoscopies were performed on all volunteers. The African-American group, who enjoyed the traditional African diet, had lesser colonic inflammation and higher levels of butyrate (a fatty acid which helps stave off colorectal cancer). Those who had consumed the fast food diet, however, displayed variations in gut bacteria linked to a higher risk of cancer.

The scientists also noted that prior to the study, almost half of the American participants had polyps in the lining of their colon; although these polyps are not harmful per se, they can lead to the development of cancer. In stark contrast, none of the Africa volunteers had any polyps in their colon.

One of the most significant aspects of the study was the speed with which a change in diet could make a difference. Just two weeks quickly altered the circumstances that give rise to a higher risk of colon cancer. The researchers noted that studies on Japanese migrants to Hawaii shows that just one generation of life in the West changes their low incidence of colon cancer to high, similar to the risk faced by native Hawaiians.

The good news is that there is plenty we can do to significantly lower our chances of contracting colorectal cancer. We should aim to consume a high fibre diet on a daily basis, and swap meat for vegetables as often as we can. Thus far, studies have shown that physical activity is also vital. There is limited to suggestive evidence for the benefits of consuming non-starchy vegetables, foods rich in Vitamin D and fruits. We should also aim to keep our weight down and avoid excess alcohol, which has been found to have detrimental effects for both men and women.

For those who have already been diagnosed with colon cancer, maintaining a healthy diet is vital, to withstand tough treatments and to reduce the severity of side-effects of treatments like radiation and chemotherapy. Patients should aim to consume plenty of fluid, protein, carbohydrates and fats.

Weight maintenance is another priority, since one of the side-effects of colorectal cancer is weight loss. Omega-3 fatty acids are also particularly important when it comes to neuropathy and appetite in patients with cancer. Patients should also look into holistic relaxation methods such as yoga and Tai Chi, since a diagnosis of colon cancer is linked to stress and anxiety, which can exacerbate the problem of rapid weight loss.

* Gemma Thomas is a freelance writer.

REFERENCES, Colorectal cancer statistics, accessed May, 2015., Global Cancer Facts and Figures, accessed May, 2015., Cancer, accessed May, 2015.

KM, Bowel cancer, accessed May, 2015., African Diet May Lead Away From Colon Cancer, accessed May, 2015., Nutrition and Colon Cancer, accessed May, 2015., Colorectal cancer, accessed May, 2015.



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