You know that eating the right mix of nutritious foods is important for your overall health and well-being. But you may not know that certain nutrients can help your colon work at its best, and some may even help prevent disease.
So, what are colon healthy foods that you should you be eating? Read on to learn why foods matter and how to make healthy choices across all food groups.
Why food matters for colon health
Everything you eat eventually passes through your colon. And eating colon-healthy foods keeps your digestive system moving, helping prevent abdominal discomfort like constipation, diarrhea, bloating, cramping and gas.
But your food choices can do so much more – including protecting you from diseases like colorectal cancer and other conditions that affect the colon and rectum.
In fact, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), at least 18% of all cancers and about 16% of cancer deaths are linked to lifestyle factors such as poor nutrition, being overweight, low activity levels and alcohol.
What to look for in colon-healthy foods
If colon health is a priority – and it should be – you’ll want to pay close attention to your food’s nutrient density and fiber content.
Nutrient-dense foods provide a ton of value to our bodies in a relatively low number of calories. These types of foods provide many of the vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, lean proteins and healthy fats your body needs – and with little to no added sugar, saturated fat and salt.
Current dietary guidelines for adults recommend that 85% of your total calories come from nutrient-rich foods – most of which should come from plants. Of course, there’s no one perfect food that provides everything your body needs. So try to eat a rainbow of fruits and vegetables, and balance these with nutrient-dense foods from other food groups.
And since nutrient-dense foods give you more value in less calories, you may have a better chance of controlling your weight – which can reduce your risk for a range of conditions, including cancer. According to the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), there is strong evidence that being overweight increases your risk for colorectal cancer.
Fiber pushes your food to the finish line, acting as a cleansing agent to remove waste and toxins that are left behind during the digestive process.
If you don’t get enough fiber, your digestive system doesn’t perform at its best – and what your poop looks like may let you know something is missing.
There are two types of fiber you need in your diet.
- Soluble fiber — This type of fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance, making you feel full longer because it takes more energy for your body to digest. Examples of foods rich in soluble fiber are oats, barley, flax seed, peas, beans, apples, citrus fruits, pears, figs and some berries.
- Insoluble fiber — This type of fiber doesn’t dissolve in water but instead travels through the digestive system mostly intact, adding bulk to your stool to prevent constipation and irregularity. Examples of foods rich in insoluble fiber are whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans and raw vegetables.
Most Americans don’t get enough of either type of fiber. The good news is that there are plenty of yummy ways to get more fiber – which we get to in the next section.
50+ foods to eat for a healthy colon and improved digestion
All your body’s health systems are connected. So, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of the best foods for colon health also make the lists of foods that help other conditions – including foods to lower cholesterol, foods to lower blood pressure and foods to improve your mood. That means, when you take steps to improve colon health, you’ll likely improve other parts of your health as well.
Eating a variety of fruits provides health benefits that go far beyond filling your belly. Fruits are high in a variety of antioxidants such as vitamin C, beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein. Fruit is also a great source of phytochemicals, which are natural substances found in plant foods that work in your body to help prevent disease.
Phytochemicals and antioxidants are believed to prevent or slow cell damage caused by free radicals – the unstable waste molecules your body produces. If you can’t remove free radicals from your system, your body doesn’t work as well and may be more likely to get diseases like cancer.
So, which are the best fruits for colon health? All of them. But there are some fruits that top the list of colon-healthy foods based on their fiber content and nutrient density.
Top fruits for colon health
|Berries such as raspberries, strawberries and blueberries||1 cup|
|Banana||One medium fruit (about 6 inches long)|
|Orange||One medium fruit|
|Grapefruit||½ of a medium fruit|
|Apple||One medium fruit|
|Avocado||⅓ of a medium fruit|
|Tomatoes||½ cup chopped|
|Pears||One medium pear|
Veggies offer many of the same colon health benefits as fruit. They’re packed with fiber, antioxidants and phytochemicals. But because veggies have less natural sugar than fruits, they have fewer calories – a bonus if you’re watching your weight.
The goal in a colon-healthy diet is at least three to five daily servings of vegetables. And while everyone loves potatoes, they shouldn’t be the only veggie on your plate. Instead, try to eat a range of vegetables. Below are some suggestions to get you started.
Top vegetables for colon health
|Broccoli||½ cup cooked|
|Spinach||1 cup uncooked|
|Kale||1 cup uncooked|
|Carrots||1 cup chopped|
|Beet||One medium beet|
|Brussels sprouts||½ cup cooked|
|Sweet potato||½ cup cooked|
|Cauliflower||One cup chopped|
Beans and legumes
Beans and legumes have all the benefits of other plant-based foods, but they bring something extra to the table: An impressive amount of protein.
Because of this, foods like black beans and lentils are a great swap-in for meats. And because they’re also high in fiber, they’ll help you feel full longer. Try to eat beans and legumes at least two or three times each week. Daily is even better.
Also, if you’re eating canned vegetables, choose “no salt added” versions.
Top beans and legumes for colon health
|Bean or legume||Serving size|
|Black beans||½ cup cooked|
|Green peas||½ cup cooked|
|Chickpeas||½ cup cooked|
|Kidney beans||½ cup cooked|
|Lentils||½ cup cooked|
|Soybeans (Edamame)||½ cup cooked|
Ever wonder what makes a grain whole? Well, they haven’t been stripped of their nutritious exteriors and include more fiber, minerals, essential fatty acids and antioxidants.
Whole grains have more fiber and protein than refined grains, so you’ll probably feel fuller after eating them, which is great for weight control.
Whole grains also include unique phytochemicals that are different from the ones found in fruits, veggies and legumes. So, making balanced choices across all the food groups can provide the most benefit to colon health.
How many whole grains do you need each day? Ideally, at least half of your daily grains – about 3 to 5 servings – should be whole grains. An easy way to get started is swapping in whole grain versions of the foods you eat every day.
Top whole grains for colon health
|Whole grain||Serving size|
|100% whole-grain products||One slice of bread, ⅓ cup cooked pasta or five or more crackers (depending on brand)|
|Brown rice or wild rice||⅓ cup cooked|
|Whole oats||½ cup cooked|
|Quinoa||⅓ cup cooked|
|Barley||⅓ cup cooked|
|Corn||One medium ear, ½ cup kernels or 3 cups of popcorn|
Nuts and seeds
Even though they’re small, nuts and seeds provide big benefits to your body. To start with, they’re rich in fiber and protein, which make you feel full and support digestion. Also, both are excellent sources of healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids, which can reduce inflammation throughout your body and your colon.
Just be careful of eating too many nuts and seeds. While they are high in nutrients, most also tend to be high in calories. So don’t go nuts and watch those serving sizes.
Top nuts and seeds for colon health
|Seed or nut||Serving size|
|Walnuts||14 nut halves|
|Pecans||15 nut halves|
|Macadamia nuts||12 nuts|
|Chia seeds||2 tablespoons|
|Sesame seeds||2 tablespoons|
Lean meats and oily fish
Simply put, eating processed meats isn’t good for your colon. In fact, the American Institute for Cancer Research has found evidence that regular intake of even small amounts of processed meats increases colorectal cancer risk. Processed meats include cold cuts, bacon, sausage and hot dogs.
Too much red meat like beef or pork can be a problem, too. If you do eat these foods, aim for lean cuts and limit to no more than 18 ounces (cooked) per week. It’s best to choose other lean meats like chicken or oily fish instead.
Eating fish instead of processed or red meat is a great way to lower your cancer risk. Oily fish can be an especially valuable choice because it’s an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acids, which our body cannot make by itself. Oily fish is also one of the few sources of natural vitamin D in foods. This is important because evidence suggests that vitamin D may decrease colon cancer risk, according to the WCRF.
It’s best to choose fish low in mercury and trim off the skin and fat before cooking. This helps lowers your chance of eating unhealthy substances that can be found in fish.
Also, if you’re pregnant, planning on becoming pregnant, or nursing, avoid the following fish because they have higher levels of mercury: king mackerel, muskie, shark, swordfish and tilefish.
Top meats and fishes for colon health
|Fish or lean meat||Serving size|
|Atlantic- or Pacific-caught salmon||3 ounces cooked (size of a checkbook)|
|Atlantic mackerel||3 ounces cooked|
|Shrimp||12 – 20 small shrimp, depending on size|
|Crab||3 ounces cooked (size of a deck of cards)|
|Chicken||3 ounces cooked|
|Turkey||3 ounces cooked|
The main players in a colon-healthy diet are plants, but there’s still room for low-fat dairy products – especially since they are good sources of calcium and vitamin D. Yogurt is especially helpful for digestion because it includes active bacterial cultures to support gut health.
It’s thought that calcium can reduce the risk of colon cancer by preventing acids – and their metabolites – from damaging the cells of the colon lining and helping to prevent the growth of cells that may possibly turn into cancer. However, the evidence showing how calcium impacts the risk of colon cancer isn’t always consistent, and more research is being done.
But one thing’s for sure – low-fat dairy products are a delicious source of many nutrients your body needs for overall health. So, you should try to eat around three servings each day.
Top dairy products for colon health
|Vitamin D-fortified milk||1 cup|
|Low-fat cheese||¼ cup shredded or one slice|
|Greek yogurt||1 cup|
Your body is about 60% water, and it needs all that water to function. That’s why it’s important to replace the water that your body loses during daily activities.
You lose water each day as you breathe, sweat, urinate or have bowel movements. As you add more fiber to your diet, your digestive system will need more water to break down your foods. So, you’ll want to add in more fluids to keep your stools soft.
But how much water is enough? You’ve probably heard the recommendation of eight 8-ounce cups of water a day – and that’s a great place to start.
What about fiber and vitamins for colon health?
Dietary guidelines say that food – not supplements – should be the primary source of all your essential nutrients. In general, most data about supplements and colon health is somewhat unclear. So, it’s a good idea to talk to your primary care doctor before you add the following supplements to your diet.
Depending on your overall health, medical history and where you live, some of the supplements you and your doctor might consider include:
Vitamin D supplements
It may be a good idea to take a vitamin D supplement if you find you’re unable to get enough from your foods or being outside during the summer months. However, there’s no proof that taking very high doses of vitamin D is better, so stick with the recommended daily dose.
Research shows that taking calcium supplements may lower the risk of colon cancer, as well as provide many other health benefits. But talk with your doctor before adding a calcium supplement to your diet. While calcium is an important nutrient, some research indicates that too much calcium for men may increase their risk of prostate cancer.
Fiber supplements don’t provide the variety of fibers and nutrients that you get from eating whole foods. So, if you’re having trouble getting your fiber, start by looking for packaged foods with added fiber – you can usually find it listed as inulin or chicory root in the ingredients.
But if you suffer from chronic constipation, diarrhea or a bowel condition, a fiber supplement may make sense for you – though it’s always a good idea to talk to your doctor first.
What if colon-healthy foods are trigger foods for you?
For many people, eating right can be a challenge because it requires changing poor eating habits. But if you have food intolerances or allergies, it can feel like your body is working hard to undermine your good food choices.
People with digestive disorders can have a whole range of food intolerances. If your digestive system is inflamed, certain foods – even healthy ones – can make your symptoms worse.
If you’ve noticed that certain foods don’t agree with you or you’re experiencing any other digestive symptoms, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They can talk with you about your symptoms, perform an exam and recommend a treatment plan, as well as refer you to a gastroenterologist if needed.
Your checklist for better colon health
Following a colon-healthy diet is a tasty way to improve your digestion and reduce your risks of colorectal cancer. But there are other things you can do, including getting exercise, watching your weight, limiting alcohol and stopping smoking if you do.
Another thing that’s essential for colon health is following colon cancer screening guidelines, which recommend that screenings begin at age 45 for both men and women – or earlier if you have certain risk factors. These screenings can catch cancer early, when it’s easiest to treat.
Talk to your doctor about how to keep your colon healthier, including your colon cancer screening options.