Can you lower your bowel cancer risk? Experts warn obesity and alcohol to blame for rise

New research suggests deaths from the disease are rising at significant rates in the UK.

Alcohol habits have been linked with a rise in bowel cancer deaths
Friends drinking in a pub Alcohol habits have been linked with a rise in bowel cancer deaths (Alamy Stock Photo)

Obesity and alcohol are leading to higher rates of bowel cancer cases among young people in the UK, researchers have warned.

A new study published in journal Annals of Oncology, looked at cancer death rates across Europe and the UK, comparing predicted death rates in 2024 against figures for 2018.

Bowel cancer deaths in people aged 25-49 were predicted to rise by 26% in men and 39% in women in the UK. Figures for other countries were significantly lower, meanwhile: Italy (by 1.5% in men and 2.6% in women), in Poland (5.9%) and among Spanish men (5.5%), and German women (7.2%).

As well as highlighting the risks associated with lifestyle factors such as alcohol intake, the researchers called for people to undergo screening sooner.

In England, people aged 60-74 are invited for bowel cancer screening, with the programme expanding to everyone aged 50 to 59.

Professor Carlo La Vecchia, from the University of Milan, said: “Key factors that contribute to the rise in bowel cancer rates among young people include overweight, obesity and related health conditions, such as high blood sugar levels and diabetes. Additional reasons are increases in heavier alcohol drinking over time in central and northern Europe and the UK, and reductions in physical activity.

“Alcohol consumption has been linked to early onset bowel cancer, and countries where there has been a reduction in alcohol consumption, such as France and Italy, have not experienced such marked rises in death rates from this cancer.”

So, how can people help reduce their risk of bowel cancer? A doctor talks through some of the key things to consider…

1. Don’t smoke

“Around 7% of bowel cancer cases in the UK are linked to smoking. Regular smokers are more likely to develop polyps in their bowel (small growths of tissue in the bowel), which when left unchecked can become cancerous,” says Dr Nikita Patel, medical director at Vitality. “It’s important to realise that every cigarette you [smoke] can heighten your risk of bowel cancer.”

The good news? There’s lots of support out there to help you quit (such as NHS stop smoking services) and, as far as health is concerned, it’s never too late.

2. Cut back on alcohol

“Like smoking, any amount of alcohol can also increase your risk of cancer, including bowel cancer,” says Dr Patel. “When you cut back on your intake, you’re actively protecting your cells from damage and reducing your risk of seven different cancers.”

This includes bowel cancer, as Cancer Research UK [CRUK] highlights on its website. Research suggests the more alcohol you drink, the higher the risk of cancer – but medically speaking, no amount is considered completely risk-free.

3. Eat more fibre

More than 90% of UK adults don’t get enough dietary fibre, according to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) – even though it’s vital for keeping the gut and that all-important microbiome healthy. Plus…

A fibre-rich diet is beneficial
A fibre-rich diet is beneficial (Alamy Stock Photo)

“From a nutritional perspective, studies have shown that incorporating fibre-rich foods can significantly reduce your risk of developing colon cancer, a subgroup of bowel cancer,” says Dr Patel. “Aim for 30g of fibre a day – from foods like oats, peas, beans, fruits, barley, cauliflower and nuts – to keep your bowel healthy and regular.”

Eating whole foods and bulking out meals with beans, legumes and veg is a great way to achieve this.

4. Avoid processed meats and limit red meat

Patel points out, there’s also “strong evidence that eating a lot of processed and red meat increases your risk of bowel cancer”. So if you are a meat-eater, “it’s best to think of red meat as an occasional treat,” she suggests.

“Aim for less than 500g of cooked red meat a week, and wherever possible, avoid processed meats. Swap your weekly bacon or ham for a veggie alternative – or another protein like poultry or fish. You can even try a fibre-packed option like beans or lentils.”

5. Keep a healthy weight

Keeping active helps
Keeping active helps (Alamy Stock Photo)

As Bowel Cancer UK points out, it’s believed 11 out of 100 bowel cancers (11%) in the UK are linked to being overweight or obese. Of course, weight is not always a clear indicator of somebody’s individual health, but Patel notes: “Excess body fat can release extra growth hormones and cause inflammation in your cells” – which is why experts say losing excess weight can be helpful.

“However, don’t rely on fad diets to drop weight quickly, as ‘crash’ dieting can make you feel poorly and lower your energy levels, and once the diet period is over, the weight could all be gained again,” says Dr Patel. “The best advice is to make sure you focus on creating long-term healthy habits that help you lose weight gradually and safely, so you can keep it off for the long run.”