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High-fiber Diet May Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

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Reducing your risk of colon cancer might be as simple as eating a bowl of high-fiber cereal and skim milk for breakfast, says a large study out today.

Cancer of the colon and rectum is the second-most-lethal malignancy in the USA, accounting for about 60,000 deaths annually. Only lung cancer kills more Americans.

The new study's findings are fairly consistent with previous research about colon cancer risk factors. Though it doesn't prove that cereal fiber and non-fat dairy products protect against colon cancer, ''it shows there's a strong association here,'' says lead author David Lieberman, chief of gastroenterology at the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Portland, Ore.

Because the vast majority of study participants were men, though, the findings can't be applied to women, Lieberman's team writes in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Lieberman and colleagues at 12 VA hospitals used colonoscopy to screen 3,121 patients between the ages of 50 and 75. None had any symptoms of digestive tract problems, but colonoscopies revealed that about 10% had advanced precancerous polyps.

Colon cancer is thought to arise from benign polyps that take years to become malignant. About 10% to 20% of U.S. adults will develop advanced precancerous polyps in their lifetime, Lieberman says, and about one-half to one-quarter of such growths will become cancerous if not removed.

The researchers compared the 329 patients with advanced polyps to 1,441 patients with no polyps. The patients completed questionnaires about diet and exercise. Researchers also asked about smoking habits and use of alcohol and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin.

While consumption of fruits and vegetables appeared to have no effect on the risk of developing advanced polyps, those who ate the most cereal fiber -- more than 8.1 grams a day -- were only about half as likely to have advanced polyps as those who ate the least.

Two studies published in 2000 randomly assigned polyp-free patients to either a high-fiber, low-fat diet or their regular diet and followed them for three or four years. The studies found no difference between the two groups in the development of new polyps, but they might not have been long enough to show a benefit. ''It takes a long time to go from normal lining of the colon to polyp to something serious,'' Lieberman says.

Current smoking and moderate to heavy alcohol use, as well as having a parent, sibling or child with colon cancer, were linked to a higher risk of advanced polyps. Besides cereal fiber, intake of vitamin D -- found in dairy products -- and use of NSAIDs appeared to be protective. Moderate physical activity and total calcium, total folate and multivitamin intake were found to be marginally protective.

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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