He’s known as the Chef Doc. Colin Zhu, DO is a board-certified doctor in both family medicine and lifestyle medicine. He’s also a chef who interned at a Michelin Star restaurant. He’s blended his medical and cooking backgrounds to become a standout in the field of culinary medicine, which studies how the foods that we eat (or don’t eat) affect our health and well-being. To Dr. Zhu, food should help us prevent disease and build resilience—and, at the same time, it should be enjoyable and tasty. Let food be thy delicious medicine, to paraphrase Hippocrates.

As research continues to emerge that nutrition can lower our risk of developing new or recurring cancers—and may even improve our response to cancer treatments—culinary medicine has become an important part of cancer care. Here, Dr. Zhu shares research on the connection between food and colorectal cancer, and he offers six tips to improve our health through changing our dietary habits.

NOTE: Nutritional needs may change before, during, and after cancer treatments. For personalized recommendations based on your cancer journey, please consult with your care team and a registered dietitian.

1. Forget about diet. Think lifestyle.

“I’m not a big fan of the word ‘diet,’” Dr. Zhu says. “It connotates temporary; it connotates short-term and yo-yoing. I use the word ‘lifestyle.’” Instead of thinking of a diet, Dr. Zhu encourages patients to embrace a lifestyle of healthy eating. This doesn’t require hard and fast rules for each meal, but it offers a nutritional North Star: a philosophy of eating that puts you on the path to health. The North Star that Dr. Zhu guides his patients toward is a whole-food, plant-based approach. He doesn’t want people to think of that as a short-term diet, but a way of daily living that builds better health.

2. Think beyond calories.

If you zoom in on calories when you look at a nutritional label, you’re missing most of the story, Dr. Zhu says. “Foods in their whole nature [have] all these different components—whether they’re vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, calories, fiber—that are all working synergistically. So the big takeaway is that it’s more than singular components. I don’t want you to just look at nutritional labels and look at calories.”

For example, 200 calories of a highly processed junk food like potato chips won’t satisfy hunger or offer much nutrition; 200 calories of fresh vegetables and fruits satiate hunger and offer nourishment. Think less about calories, and think more about all the ways that food is serving (or not serving) your health.

3. The essential nutrient you’re probably missing: fiber.

Fiber is literally one of the most essential nutrients that is not talked about,” Dr. Zhu says. “Fiber plays a huge role in promoting or reducing the risk of colorectal cancer, depending on what you’re ingesting.” Many dietitians and plant-based experts recommend consuming between 30 to 40 grams of fiber daily—a level, which has been proven to reduce the risk of colorectal cancer—but 97% of Americans don’t reach those levels. (Note: People who’ve had recent surgery for colorectal cancer may require a low-fiber diet; talk with your provider for personalized recommendations.)

Fiber is only found in plant foods—fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans—and it’s vital for health. Other than reducing the risk of colorectal cancer, fiber can lower cholesterol, reduce inflammation, protect your heart, and maintain good bowel habits. Which leads us to…

4. Your poop matters.

“We’ve got to talk about poop,” Dr. Zhu says. “You increase your risk for colorectal cancer if your daily average poop measures below half a pound each day.” If you’re curious how to know exactly how much poop you pooped, Dr. Zhu recommends getting on a digital scale before and after. Another rule for poop? You want the time between eating food and pooping that food to be less than 24 to 36 hours. Curious how to measure your poop transit time? Find something that will announce its presence in your poop—beets, anyone?—to help you time your transit.

5. Embrace your veggies; limit your meat.

“The largest study of diet and health in history…found that meat consumption was associated with increased risk of dying from cancer, heart disease, and dying prematurely in general,” Dr. Zhu says. The National Cancer Institutes developed the study that he references, the NIH-AARP Diet and Health Study, which followed 545,000 people between 50 and 71 years of age for a decade to study mortality risks associated with food. It found that there is an eight-fold increase in risk for colorectal cancer for people who have a high-meat/low-vegetable lifestyle compared to those who follow a high-vegetable/low-meat lifestyle. Dr. Zhu emphasizes that the benefits not only come with limiting meat but by increasing intake of plants, too.

6. Invest the time to increase your nutrition.

Fast foods are convenient, sure, but they’re also not really food. Dr. Zhu calls highly processed foods “food-related products” because they’re so far removed from the foods that nature intended for us to eat that they may not even qualify for the label anymore.

“Good food takes more time. Cooking takes more time. Good health takes more time. It’s about lifestyle changes about changing behaviors to last a lifetime.”

Watch Dr. Zhu’s webinar Gut Health—Cooking Tips & Tricks, or learn more about diet and nutrition during treatment for colorectal cancer. Join us for a free Gut-Friendly Cooking Demo with Sarah Copeland, Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2021, from 5-6pm ET.

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Food. We can't live without it, but for many in the colorectal cancer community, it's hard to live with it. Yet as doctors, nutritionists, and research data all say: Diet and nutrition play an essential role in cancer prevention and treatment. Food is a topic we can't ignore.

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