• A diet rich in fibre, including fruits and vegetables, can help promote good gut health and reduce the risk of bowel cancer. (Moment RF/Getty Images)
“Food is the key to turning our gut and bowel health around.”
Yasmin Noone

7 May 2018 - 8:16 AM  UPDATED 29 Jan 2019 - 2:05 PM

Australia has one of the highest rates of bowel cancer in the world. According to the bowel cancer awareness group, Jodi Lee Foundation, the disease claims a life every two hours, nationwide. That means around 80 people die each week (over 4,000 people a year) from bowel cancer in Australia.

And yet, experts say that bowel cancer is one of the most treatable forms of cancer if detected early when symptoms first present – over 90 per cent of cases can be successfully treated if someone is diagnosed before the cancer spreads.

Accredited Practicing Dietitian at Sprout Cooking School, Themis Chryssidis says there seems to be a disconnect in conversations about bowel cancer prevention and gut health – as though the bowel and the gut are unrelated.  

“When you think about it there has to be a strong link between bowel cancer, our gut and the food we eat because the food we eat ends up in our bowel."

This is despite the fact that the bowel is the lower part of the gut (also called the digestive system or gastrointestinal tract).

“When you think about it there has to be a strong link between bowel cancer, our gut and the food we eat because the food we eat ends up in our bowel,” says Chryssidis. “Your gut includes the bowel. So gut health and bowel health are essentially the one thing.”

The foundation estimates that around 65 per cent of us will experience uncomfortable gut symptoms in any three-month period. That’s symptoms like bloating, cramping, constipation, diarrhoea, blood in your stools and unexplained weight loss.

Chryssidis stresses the importance of looking after our guts and paying attention to any symptoms that may be linked to poor bowel health.

“We should not only have the right diet to promote good gut health and reduce our risk of bowel cancer but we should also have regular check-ups to ensure that, should anything be slightly concerning, we can find it and deal with it quickly and easily.”

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What should we eat to protect our guts and prevent bowel cancer?

Chryssidis says that there are a lot of theories proposing various methods to restore gut health. But, he believes consuming a diet that is rich in prebiotics is the key. Prebiotics are the dietary fibre found in food ingredients that stimulate the growth of our good gut bacteria.

“Gut bacteria can be good and bad for us,” says Chryssidis. “There will always be some bad bacteria in the gut but we want to ensure the quantity doesn’t grow to levels that make us feel unwell.

“In order to have a good, healthy, functioning gut, we also want to have a really large quantity of healthy bacteria in our guts.

“Yet the diet we consume is actually the food that the good gut bacteria effectively consume – so this is something we can manipulate. So, essentially, we can keep our gut nice and healthy if we feed the good bacteria in our guts with prebiotics.

“Food is the key to turning our gut and bowel health around.”

“In order to have a good, healthy, functioning gut, we also want to have a really large quantity of healthy bacteria in our guts.

A high-fibre diet is therefore recommended to promote gut health and prevent bowel cancer over the long-term.

You also want a diet with different types of fibre, soluble and insoluble and resistant starch. Variety is really important.”

Here are a few simple diet tips to help you promote a healthy gut and reduce your risk of bowel cancer.

1. Eat vegetables

A high fibre diet includes lots of vegetables. “Bright coloured vegetables will contain antioxidants which can reduce your risk of cancer.

“Eat your vegetable skins if possible, because they contain non-digestible fibre.”

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2. Fruit

Two to three pieces of fruit a day is recommended for the ‘average’ person.

But Chryssidis says this amount may vary according to your individual health status. “For example, if you have no health concerns at all, then having an extra piece of fruit each day is not a problem.

“On the other hand, if you have poorly controlled diabetes you wouldn’t have two-to-three pieces of fruit a day. You’d want to have less than that and perhaps include more vegetables in your diet.”

Dietitians can offer advice on how much fruit you should be having specific to your health and dietary needs.

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3. Healthy fats

“We also want to ensure the foods we eat are rich in mono and polyunsaturated fats, which are good for the brain and our gut. Firstly, because these fats are useful for our gut cells to use and metabolise. They are also anti-inflammatory.

“Nuts, seeds and wholegrains are great sources of healthy fats, as is olive oil and fish oils.” 

Saturated fats should be avoided.

4. Water

“Water is so underrated from the perspective of your health and wellbeing," Chryssidis says. "Water helps to keep your blood pressure stable. It also transfers nutrients around your body.

“Finally, drinking a lot of water may help to pass stools a lot easier. It’s important for good bowel health as well.”

5. Limit your alcohol

Obviously alcohol can increase our risk of negative health outcomes. But it can also create an inflammatory response on our body.

“Alcohol can also trigger a desire for high salt and fatty foods, which is not good for our cardiovascular health.”

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“At the end of the day, by having a good diet you are trying to control what we can control to reduce your risk of getting bowel cancer," he says.

“A good diet might not solve all of your problems. But the reality is that most people who [eat a good diet and get regular check ups] may have a reduced risk of cancer.”

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