I don’t need to remind you that it’s important to get a periodic colonoscopy starting at age 50 (even earlier if you’re at high risk for colon cancer). You already know that’s an important way to detect the deadly disease early so that you can treat it quickly and prevent it from advancing.
The great news is that there’s something else that women can do to lower their odds of dying from colon cancer—and even reduce the chance of developing it in the first place, according to a new study.
And let me tell you, it’s a lot more enjoyable than getting a colonoscopy! It involves eating a delicious food…
PROTECTION FROM POLYPS
Are you ready to find out what this cancer buster is? It’s fish! Salmon, sardines and other oily cold water fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to promote brain power, heart health, eye health, clearer skin…and now we can add “may prevent colon cancer” to that list. So I called the researchers to find out why fish may help and how much you need to eat to get the extra protection.
To study the effect of fish on colon health, researchers recruited more than 5,300 men and women between 40 and 75 years old who underwent colonoscopies. After the test, participants—some with polyps and others without polyps (the control group)— answered questions about their diets, general health habits and medical history.
After factoring in variables such as age, race, body mass index and smoking, researchers found that women, in particular, who consumed the most fish (at least three servings a week) were 33% less likely to develop potentially cancerous colon polyps called adenomas than women who ate the least fish (one-half serving or less a week). However, among men, the researchers found no association between eating fish and a reduced risk for potentially cancerous polyps.
While these results don’t prove that eating fish definitely prevents colon cancer among women, they do show a strong association, and that is a strong indication that eating fish might help.
WHY FISH HELPS FEMALES
To discuss why fish may have this effect—and why it has this effect only on women—I spoke to lead study author Harvey J. Murff, MD, MPH, an associate professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville.
Healthful omega-3 fatty acids in fish may be what reduce polyp risk because they reduce inflammation throughout the body, including in the colon, Dr. Murff said. But he readily concedes that he and his colleagues were puzzled to see this effect only in women. He speculates that it may be due to men’s diets overall. In the dietary surveys, compared to women, men consumed higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids, which are commonly found in foods such as meat, grains and processed foods, and those can offset the positive impact of omega-3s. Another possible reason for the disparity: Biological differences between men and women. For example, men and women metabolize fatty acids differently due to having different balances of hormones.
I asked Dr. Murff whether the fact that all women studied were over 40 (and therefore likely either perimenopausal or menopausal) potentially had something to do with the findings. “We are analyzing the data to see whether that made a difference, so we’re not sure yet,” he said.
Whether you’re a man or a woman, you can’t go wrong by including more omega-3s in your diet, said Dr. Murff. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish rich in omega-3s at least twice a week, and this study suggests that three servings a week may be even better.
So fill your plate with fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna. While this study did not examine cooking methods, steaming, baking and broiling are healthier ways to prepare your fish than frying or grilling. You can also get omega-3 fatty acids from nonfish foods, such as flaxseed, walnuts, soybeans and canola oil. Dr. Murff said that getting omega-3s through food is ideal, but if you’re interested in taking a fish oil or krill oil supplement, talk to your doctor.