Can diet affect your risk of bowel cancer?

Despite bowel cancer being commonly diagnosed in Australia, it is potentially one of the most preventable cancers through the early detection of abnormalities from screening. The link between lifestyle factors, such as diet, and the risk of bowel cancer was first reposted by Denis Burkitt in the early 1970s. Dr Burkitt noticed a low incidence of gut diseases in native Africans, who consumed large intakes of dietary fibre, particularly resistant starch in the form of maize meals (Burkitt, 1971). In recent years, further studies have similarly suggested that individuals who consume more fibre-rich foods have reduced risks of colorectal/bowel cancers. In fact, the 2018 report by the World Cancer Research Fund concluded that there is strong evidence for a protective effect of foods containing dietary fibre against bowel cancer, and their Cancer Prevention Recommendations advise the consumption of >30g fibre per day (WCRF, 2018).

What is dietary fibre?

Dietary fibre is a type of indigestible carbohydrate that helps keep our digestive system healthy. Dietary fibre is mainly found in wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes. There are two key types of dietary fibre, the first being soluble fibre, which soaks up water like a sponge and helps to add bulk to stools. This fibre is great for slowing down the rate of digestion and also helps to reduce LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. Food sources of soluble fibre include fruit and vegetables, barley, flaxseed, psyllium husk and legumes. Alternatively, there is also insoluble fibre which is responsible for speeding up the time in which food passes through the gut and helps to soften stools, therefore supporting regular bowel movements and preventing constipation. Food sources of insoluble
fibre include wholegrain breads and cereals, oats, nuts, seeds, and the skin from fruit and vegetables.

How does dietary fibre impact risk of bowel cancer?

One of the main ways that dietary fibre can help reduce risk of bowel cancer is by limiting the exposure of the large bowel’s lining to harmful carcinogens. Dietary fibre is responsible for this in many ways, including binding carcinogens to stools, then expelling them from the body promptly.

Secondly, dietary fibre with prebiotic effects can also increase the amount and diversity of your gut bacteria. The beneficial gut bacteria convert fibre into short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate, which reduce the ability of cells in the intestine to become cancerous.

Finally, dietary fibre and butyrate also have anti-inflammatory properties. Inflammation can give rise to various diseases including bowel cancer, and people with inflammatory bowel diseases (IBDs) such as ulcerative colitis are at greater risk of developing bowel cancer.

How can I increase fibre intake?

Every day, men should be aiming for 30g of dietary fibre and women should be aiming for 25g.

Here are some tips to help boost your fibre intake throughout the day:

  1. Oats for breakfast – oats are an excellent breakfast cereal to start your day. Not only are they rich in fibre, but they’re also super versatile and can be made in a variety of different ways.
  2. Include a variety of wholegrains and high fibre vegetables into lunch and dinner. (e.g. wholegrain/multigrain breads, brown rice, quinoa, broccoli, legumes).
  3. Stock the pantry with high fibre snacks, such as nuts and seeds, fruit (skin on), wholegrain crisp breads (i.e. Ryvitas), hommus.

Would you like to know more?

Have a read of our resources listed or book in for a consultation with our accredited practising dietitian and nutritionist Amanda who can individually assess your needs.


Kuo S. M. (2013). The interplay between fiber and the intestinal microbiome in the inflammatory response. Advances in nutrition (Bethesda, Md.), 4(1), 16–28.

Masrul, M., & Nindrea, R. D. (2019). Dietary Fibre Protective against Colorectal Cancer Patients in Asia: A Meta-Analysis. Open access Macedonian journal of medical sciences, 7(10), 1723–1727.

Segain, J. P., Raingeard de la Blétière, D., Bourreille, A., Leray, V., Gervois, N., Rosales, C., Ferrier, L., Bonnet, C., Blottière, H. M., & Galmiche, J. P. (2000). Butyrate inhibits inflammatory responses through NFkappaB inhibition: implications for Crohn’s disease. Gut, 47(3), 397–403.

Pro Nutrition SA, Amanda Maiorano, Accredited Practising Dietitian

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