What's Good for the Heart Is Also Good for the Colon

The human body is an amazing thing. It’s composed of several different systems such as cardiovascular/circulatory, respiratory, digestive/excretory, nervous, renal, muscular/skeletal, endocrine and more. Each of these systems serves a purpose in our body to keep us alive and functioning.

What we sometimes forget is that these systems also interconnect with each other every day. So, what’s good for one organ is good for others.

You may not give much thought to what helps keep your colon healthy, but it’s good to know that what keeps it healthy is also good for other parts of the body.

A growing body of research on our gut or the microbiome (this is the community of microbes that live in us and help keep us healthy) is showing what keeps your colon nice and healthy may also reduce the risk for inflammatory diseases, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A Healthy Gut

One thing you can do to promote the health of your gut (your insides) is to eat a diet that produces more health-promoting substances called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs).

Research shows we can do this through a diet similar to a Mediterranean diet or vegetarian eating plan that is:

  • High in fiber from vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes
  • Low in red meat/processed meats

When we have a high-fiber diet, healthy bacteria in the gut produce SCFAs as fiber from these healthy foods is fermented.

SCFAs exhibit anti-inflammatory properties keeping the lining of the colon healthy and inhibiting the growth of cancer cells. Once produced, SCFAs can also be reabsorbed into the blood stream and travel to other parts of the body and organs such as the liver and heart. Some research shows that SCFAs can affect the metabolism of substances such as glucose (basically blood sugar) and lipids (specific fatty acids in the blood). This change can aid in lowering your cholesterol levels and stabilizing blood glucose levels.

Fiber is Good!

The more fiber you eat, the more of those beneficial SCFAs are produced and the lower your risk for colon cancer and heart disease.

For every 10 grams of fiber you eat regularly, your risk of colon cancer drops by 10 percent! Consuming a diet high in animal products and low in fiber produces much less SCFAs and may increase risk for colon cancer and heart disease.

Watch Your Diet

This isn’t the first time red meat has been linked to cancer — the evidence has been growing for decades. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer released a major report on red meat/processed meats and cancer. They identified processed meats as a Group 1 carcinogen (same as cigarettes), firmly linking them to cancer. Unprocessed red meats fared a little better, identified as a Group 2A carcinogen — foods or substances that probably cause cancer.

Eating larger amounts of animal foods (especially beef, pork and processed meats) may also lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. Gut microbes convert the carnitine and choline in these foods to trimethylamine and then the liver converts it to a substance called trimethylamine oxide (TMAO). Too much TMAO is linked to cardiovascular disease. Levels of TMAO are often much lower in vegetarians and vegans, and higher in those eating larger amounts of animal-based foods.

So What’s a Person to Do?

The good news is that you don’t have to cut out processed meats and fresh red entirely or become a vegan. Here’s what to do to keep both your colon and heart healthy:

  • Limit processed meats (bacon, sausage, hot dogs, corned beef, bologna, salami, deli meats) as much as possible.
  • Choose more poultry, fish and plant-based protein foods (legumes, nuts, nut butters, organic soy) in place of red meat.
  • When eating red meat, choose leaner cuts (look for the words “loin” and “round”).
  • When grilling meat, marinate and avoid charring to prevent cancer-causing compounds from forming.
  • Move meat from the center to the side of the plate and make vegetables more of the focus.
  • Aim for one or more meatless dinners each week.
  • Balance out meat consumption with plenty of plant-based foods high in fiber (vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, etc…) every day.

Reduce Your Cancer Risks

We’ve explored how the right diet can promote your healthy short-chain fatty acids. The right nutrition can also fend off colorectal cancer.

That disease can sneak up on you with little or no sign. Your best bet is to catch it early through screenings. Ask your health care professional about your recommended screening schedule.

You should be familiar with your risk factors:

  • If you’ve had colorectal cancer in your family, your risk is higher.
  • Age is a primary risk factor. Most people who develop it are over age 50. Screenings should begin at that age for most people.

Colorectal cancer starts small and often without symptoms. It starts from polyps — small growths on the inner lining of the colon or rectum. Polyps can be seen and removed during a colonoscopy. So the screening itself helps to prevent cancer development.

Let your health care provider know about your risks and ask for guidance in making sure you’re doing what you can to take care of your heart and colon.

Meet the Author

Heather Klug, MEd RD is a registered dietitian and cardiac educator at the Karen Yontz Women's Cardiac Awareness Center inside Aurora St. Luke's Medical Center in Milwaukee, WI.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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