Preventive measures can go a long way in reducing your risk of colorectal cancers, which are the third leading cause of death from cancer in the United States.

While you can’t prevent certain risk factors such as age and family history, early screening and lifestyle measures that address diet, exercise, and weight can help reduce your risk of colon cancer.

One of the best things you can do to reduce your risk of colon cancer is to eat more plant-based foods. Research has found that diets that include plenty of fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains can decrease your risk of colon cancers and other cancers.


  • A 2017 study found that what we eat affects our risk of developing colon cancer: Consuming fibers, fruit, and vegetables decreases risk while eating red and processed meat increases risk.
  • A 2015 study found that a plant-based diet decreased the risk of colon cancer by 49 percent, compared with a typical American diet that includes high meat consumption.
  • Another 2015 study concluded that a plant-based diet “provides robust benefits against a multitude of cancers while presenting virtually no threat of unwanted side effects.”

Eating less red meat and processed meats, such as steak, ground beef, lunch meats, and hot dogs can significantly reduce your risk of colon cancer.


  • A 2005 European study that followed 478,000 men and women found that those who ate the most red meat, approximately 5 ounces or more per day, were more likely to develop colon cancer than those who ate the least red meat, less than 1 ounce a day.
  • A 2005 study based in the United States found that a high consumption of both red meats and processed meats led to a substantial increase in the risk of colon cancer.
  • A 2015 meta-analysis also concluded that eating red meat and processed meat “convincingly increases the risk of colon cancer by 20 to 30 percent.”
  • A 2007 study that investigated whether red and processed meat consumption increased cancer risk found “significantly elevated risks” (20 percent for colorectal cancer) for study participants who consumed the highest amount of processed meat.

Reducing or avoiding alcohol consumption can lower your risk of colon cancer. The American Cancer Society’s new guidelines for reducing the risk of cancer recommend limiting alcohol consumption. For women, that means no more than one drink per day, and for men, no more than two drinks per day.


  • A 2021 study established that heavy alcohol consumption in early adulthood is a risk factor for colorectal cancer.
  • A 2018 study on alcohol consumption and colorectal cancer found that alcohol is one of the largest contributors to the development of colorectal cancer.
  • A new 2021 study from the World Health Organization also confirmed a link between alcohol and a higher risk of colon cancer.

Smokers are at a 50 percent higher risk of developing colon cancer than those who never smoked. This means that if you smoke, one way to reduce your risk of colon cancer is to try to quit.


  • A 12-year study of over 180,000 people found an association between cigarette smoking and the risk of colon cancer. According to the study, the risk was greatest among current, long-time smokers. The risk decreased for former smokers who stopped smoking before the age of 40 or who had not smoked for more than 31 years.
  • Another study, started by the American Cancer Society in 1982 and published in 2000, concluded that long-term cigarette smoking is associated with an increased risk of colon cancer mortality in both men and women. This study also found that early smoking cessation reduced the risk.
  • A comprehensive 2020 meta-analysis found that cigarette smoking increases the risk of colorectal cancer, with the risk increasing linearly with the intensity and duration of smoking and decreasing with quitting.

Managing your weight is another way to reduce your risk of colon cancer.

According to the National Cancer Institute, people with overweight or obesity are about 30 percent more likely to develop colon cancer than those without the conditions. In addition, a high body mass index (BMI) is linked to increased risks of colon and rectal cancers, particularly in men.


Regular exercise can help you manage your weight and reduce your risk of colon cancer. And those aren’t the only benefits. Exercise can also boost your spirits, improve your mental health, and even help you sleep better.


  • A 2019 study found that physical activity may not only prevent approximately 15 percent of colon cancers, but may also decrease the mortality risk and recurrence of colon cancer before and after diagnosis.
  • A 2009 meta-analysis concluded that people can likely reduce their risk of colon cancer by 24 percent through regular physical activity.
  • A 2017 study also found that a sedentary lifestyle, specifically prolonged TV viewing, occupational sitting time, and total sitting time were associated with increased colorectal cancer in adults.

Due to the nature of colon cancer, screening tests are done before signs and symptoms may develop.

Colorectal cancer screening via traditional colonoscopy is typically recommended every 10 years starting at age 45. However, your doctor may recommend testing sooner — and more often — if you’re at higher risk.

Colon cancer risk factors

According to the Colorectal Cancer Facts & Figures 2020-2022 from the American Cancer Society:

  • In the United States, about 13 percent of colon cancers are attributed to alcohol consumption, and 12 percent to current or former tobacco use.
  • Current smokers are at a 50 percent higher risk of developing colon cancer than those who never smoked.
  • Men with obesity have about a 50 percent higher risk of colon cancer than people without obesity, while women with obesity have about a 10 percent increased risk.

Discuss the following screening options with your doctor to determine which is the best method for you.


A colonoscopy uses a camera and light called a colonoscope to gain images of the colon and rectum. You can read this article for more detailed information on the procedure.


  • A colonoscopy is considered the “gold standard” in colon cancer screening due to its accuracy and the ability for your doctor to remove precancerous growths at the same time.


  • The need for cleaning out the bowels ahead of time may be uncomfortable. Also, there’s a risk of tears and bleeding in the colon.
  • A mild form of sedation is required for the procedure and you’ll need to arrange for transportation to and from the doctor’s office.

Virtual/CT colonoscopy

This screening method uses computed tomography (CT) scans after the colon is slightly inflated with air to provide better images. Read more about this method here.


  • A virtual/CT colonoscopy may feel less invasive than a traditional colonoscopy.


  • If your doctor finds polyps or suspicious growths, they won’t be able to remove them without performing a regular colonoscopy. There may also be a risk of radiation exposure from repeated screenings.

Flexible sigmoidoscopy

A flexible sigmoidoscopy uses a light and camera lens (in this case, a sigmoidoscope) to view the colon. Read this article for more information on the procedure.


  • A flexible sigmoidoscopy poses fewer risks of side effects than a traditional colonoscopy and your doctor will also be able to remove growths during the procedure, if needed.


  • This screening method looks at the whole rectum, but only the lower third of your colon.

Fecal occult blood test (FOBT)

This screening method uses a light and camera lens (in this case, a sigmoidoscope) to examine the colon.


  • The FOBT is able to find microscopic traces of blood that may not be visible during a normal bowel movement at home.


  • One downside of an FOBT is the risk of false-positive results. If any abnormal results arise, your doctor will likely recommend a colonoscopy.

DNA stool test

This test analyzes a stool sample for possible genetic changes that may point to colorectal cancer. This article provides additional information about this test.


  • Some DNA stool tests are sold over the counter, and may be completed in the comfort of your own home.


  • This method isn’t foolproof, and it’s not ideal if you’re considered high-risk for colon cancer. Like an FOBT, DNA stool tests may produce false-positive results.