Nutrition is crucial to our health. It’s important for cancer prevention, throughout treatment, and survivorship. We generally know what foods are healthy and which ones to consume in moderations, but it’s also important to research how certain foods affect cancer risk and overall health outcomes. 

Fight CRC interviewed Megan Schaberg, a senior at Auburn University studying Nutrition Science and serving as a researcher in the Dietary Chemoprevention, Gut Health, and Aging Lab, to better understand nutrition and cancer research and what types of dietary interventions are actually feasible to implement.

Describe the research you conducted. What prompted you/your research team to investigate this question?

Colon cancer risk is associated with several behavioral factors, in particular diets high in red meat and low in green leafy vegetables. With a rise in colon cancer cases directly attributed to suboptimal diet and an increasing prevalence in younger adults, the ultimate goal of our research is to find a public health approach that is backed by science and actually feasible for people to follow. Our lab primarily focuses on dietary intervention studies to justify the “approach that is backed by science,” but that is meaningless if whatever we discover is not feasible for people to follow.

It is clear that avoiding red meat can reduce colon cancer risk, but several research groups had already found that many people will not adopt a meat-free diet. Because our dietary interventions are actually testing the ability of green leafy vegetables to mitigate the potential cancer-causing effects of red meat, it was important to see if the people unwilling to forego red meat were willing to eat more green leafy vegetables. The Dietary Habits and Colon Cancer Beliefs Survey (DHCCBS) was designed to fill this knowledge gap, and the current study expounded on our previous findings. 

What does this research mean for the CRC community? What is the important takeaway for them to know?

Our results suggest younger populations may not recognize their risk of colon cancer and are less likely to take necessary action to improve their health outcomes. This highlights the importance of early prevention and potentially beginning colon cancer screenings earlier than the current recommended age of 50. Furthermore, these colon cancer screenings for younger adults should include education on risk reduction behaviors to decrease colon cancer morbidity and mortality. We also found that all age groups in the Southern US are consuming less green leafy vegetables than the Western US, while, to our surprise, there were no differences in red meat consumption. This illustrates the need for region-specific recommendations in order to optimally influence colon cancer risk.

How will this research inform future areas of study?

Changing lifestyle behaviors of adults is difficult, especially at the population level. This research, coupled with our clinical dietary interventions, is building the case for a public health approach that is backed by science and actually feasible for people to follow. Our hope is that, if successful, this whole-diet approach to prevention could be tested in other cancers and chronic diseases and we could prevent a large proportion of premature morbidity and mortality through diet alone.

To learn more about healthy eating and colorectal cancer, check out our nutrition resources!

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