Colon cancer is rising at alarming rates in people younger than 50.

Why is this happening? How can we prevent colon cancer? Annette Vannilam, MD, Pediatric Gastroenterologist shares ways parents can encourage healthy colon health in kids.

Let's be clear...

1) Genetics do play a role in colon cancer risk factor—but we cannot change our genes; and 
2) Colon cancer is still very rare in kids.   

We do, however, have full control of certain choices we make that can help prevent colon cancer. 

Why is there a rise in colon cancer in younger people?

Researchers are still investigating the answer to this. Right now, the best guess is a combination of genetics and diet, as well as environmental factors.  

What are some ways for kids to prevent colon cancer? 

Here are 5 diet and exercise tips that can go a long way in preventing colon—and other—cancers:

1. "F" is for fiber and "C" is for calcium.

Getting enough fiber is key to a healthy gut because fiber plays a role in helping the “good” bacteria thrive. So make sure you offer up plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains—which can all protect against colon cancer. Think: plant proteins like beans, peas and lentils and all the favorite fruits and veggies. The more colorful the plate, the better.

Studies have shown that consuming high-dietary calcium can help decrease the risk of colon cancer. This means getting at least 20% of the recommended daily value. Yogurt is a great way to encourage calcium intake, and so are supplements if medically necessary. (Ask your doctor about those!)  

>Related: 6 Easy, Healthy Recipes You Can Make With Kids  

2. Know the risks of obesity because knowledge is power.

Kids come in different shapes and sizes—which is awesome!—but being overweight or obese (very overweight) can:

  • Increase the risk of colon cancer later in life.
  • Cause heart disease, high cholesterol and type 2 diabetes.
  • Spark weight stigma from peers and others, which can greatly affect their mental health. 

Work with your child and with their doctor on ways to stay at a healthy weight, which can go a long way in preventing colon cancer and other diseases.

>Related:  Prevent Childhood Obesity in 5 Steps 

3. Avoid processed meats and limit red meat.

When you eat a lot of processed and red meat, constipation and gut discomfort are common. Though many studies have claimed there is a link between these meats and colon cancer, 

  • Researchers are still hard at work in this area.  
  • We’re not saying a delicious, juicy cheeseburger is a recipe for colon cancer. Still, it’s probably a good idea to encourage your child to eat them in moderation.  

Put a positive spin on limiting red and processed meats by having a Meatless Monday challenge once a week. Here’s an easy Cuban-inspired rice and beans recipe from the American Cancer Society.  

>More on the link between processed and red meat and colon cancer, including research studies, in this article from the National Cancer Institute

4. Start the conversation about drinking and smoking.

Alcohol and tobacco use can cause all sorts of GI issues and increase the risk of colon cancer. If you have pre-teens or teenagers, now’s the time to start an open dialogue about alcohol, tobacco and the risks that come with drinking, smoking and even vaping. Here are some strategies:

  • Ask them what they’ve heard or seen from friends around them.
  • Ask what they’ve seen on social media about tobacco, alcohol and other drugs. Take a genuine interest and see if they’ll give you a tour of their social account together if they’re active on social media
  • Then, present them with facts that you’ve seen. Instead of appearing doom and gloom, start with phrases like, “Did you know…?” and then ask them what they think. 

>Related: Is Vaping Safe? Spoiler Alert: Nope

5. Exercise, exercise, exercise!

The American Heart Association recommends kids of all ages get at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day. It doesn’t have to happen all at once! 15-minute increments a few times a day are just as good. We all know exercise has tremendous benefits, and research says it can help encourage good gut health and prevent some cancers. Here are ideas:

  • For nice-weather days, kick around a soccer ball at the park or just walk and run around. Or, go for a swim, hike or bike ride. 
  • For bleaker weather days, get moving inside. Yes, cleaning can be good exercise, too, and fun. 

>Related: Get Creative—and Active—With Household Chores (#2 at the link)

It’s always important for families to know their genetic risk, but prevention can be a powerful medicine.

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