It's all about the gut this month. Actually, gut health has been a big trend in recent years. We're very interested, suddenly, in what's going on inside.
That's a good thing, but we'd do well to think about our guts even more seriously – especially if we feel like things are not quite right "down there".
Bowel cancer is one of our country's biggest killers. It's second only to lung cancer for the number of cancer-related deaths it causes. And the sad thing is that 75 per cent of all bowel cancer cases can be treated – and survived – if caught early enough.
Bowel Cancer New Zealand says that's why it's super important to be brave and get checked out if you notice anything that's not normal for you when it comes to your bowel. That means things like any change in bowel habit – constipation or diarrhoea, for example, especially when combined with pain, bleeding, weight loss or tiredness. Bowel cancer doesn't just strike older people; there are hundreds of people under 50 diagnosed every year. If you've got a family history of bowel cancer, you may be at even higher risk.
So if in doubt, get checked out. No one wants to die of embarrassment. As they say: if you've got symptoms, don't sit on them.
Bowel cancer is not totally preventable, but there's lots of research to suggest ways we can lower our risk for it.
The obvious ones like cutting out smoking and reducing alcohol intake are no-brainers. Alcohol is the one we don't want to know about, but the evidence is clear: the more we drink, the higher our risk. Not drinking, or drinking very, very little, are great strategies to lower risk of not just bowel cancer, but at least six other cancers, too.
That out of the way, the food we eat every day can also help. As tends to be the case with almost any disease or disorder, eating lots of vegetables and fruit is the basis for a cancer-preventing diet. They're packed with beneficial compounds like antioxidants and vitamins that fight inflammation; they're also full of fibre which we know is good for our gut.
Fibre's role has been reconfirmed recently by local research; a large study published in the Lancet led by Otago University researchers found that eating at least 30g of fibre a day offers great benefit. People who eat the most fibre have a 15 to 30 per cent lower risk of death from non-communicable diseases – including bowel cancer - compared to people who ate little fibre.
– not just fruit and veges, but also whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, chickpeas, lentils and all the legumes. The more and the wider variety we eat, it seems, the greater the benefit.
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It's tempting to think we could shortcut all this by going for a supplement – one of those multivitamins that offers the goodness of 30 vegetables, say, or a fibre supplement. Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to work that way; we don't get the same benefit from a pill as we do from whole foods.
That's because all the good qualities that are bound up in the whole food – the so-called food matrix – are still a bit mysterious and unknown. So far evidence suggests that isolating various components from fruits and veges doesn't work the same way as eating the whole fruit or vege would.
Red meat comes up often in discussions of cancer risk, and it's worth looking at. The Cancer Society says research clearly shows bowel cancer is more common amongst people who eat large amounts of red (and processed) meats than people who eat smaller amounts.
It's thought that's because of some of the chemicals in meat that, when broken down in the bowel, can damage nearby cells, making cancer more likely to develop. The Society recommends eating no more than 500g (raw weight) of red meat a week.
If there's a food to cut out completely, though, it would be processed meat – the likes of bacon, salami, ham, cured sausages etc. These are ranked as a Group 1 carcinogen, just like alcohol; that means they are strongly linked with cancer.
It's the nitrogen-based preservatives used in these that seems to be the reason they increase bowel cancer risk. It's recommended we eat little if any, processed meat.
So, what's the bottom line (pun intended) for a bowel cancer-friendly diet? Surprise, it's the same way of eating we know has all kinds of other health-giving properties, too. Mostly plants; not too much.
And again, if your gut feels grumbly, get it checked.