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Your colon helps you pass waste out of your body after you have digested important vitamins and minerals.
When the colon isn’t healthy, you can suffer from constipation, abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating.
The best ways to keep your colon healthy are to eat a high-fiber diet that limits red meat, processed meat and added sugars.
When you’re eating, you probably don’t give the food much thought after you’ve chewed and swallowed it. But as you shift your focus on other to-dos in your day, your colon has just started the job it was meant to do — and it can function well if you keep it as healthy as possible.
How the colon works
When you chew and swallow food, you break it down into smaller pieces so it can start its journey through the esophagus, into the stomach. In the stomach, it is broken down into liquid and passed into the small bowel, also called the small intestine. The small bowel continues to break down the food and help your body absorb all the important vitamins and minerals.
Then, it’s time for the colon — also called the large bowel or large intestine — to do its job. After the now-liquid food passes into the colon, the water becomes absorbed and bacteria in the colon break down the remaining material. Your colon then moves the waste into the rectum, which moves it out of the anus in the form of stool.
When your colon isn’t healthy, you may have trouble eliminating waste, which could cause bloating, constipation, pain and diarrhea. So, it’s definitely in your best interest to be good to your colon!
Enrich your diet with fiber
Adequate fiber intake is essential for a healthy colon. Fiber has a number of health benefits, including normalizing bowel function and preventing constipation.
Every day, adult women should consume 25 grams (g), and men 38g, of fiber. To reach your target, try to incorporate fiber-rich foods, including:
- Fruit, such as avocado (10g/cup), raspberries (8g/cup), pears (6g/cup), apples (4g/cup) and bananas (3g/medium banana)
- Veggies, such as Brussels sprouts (4g/cup), carrots (3.5g/cup) and broccoli (2.5g/cup)
- Legumes, including lentils (15g/cup), chickpeas (12.5g/cup) and kidney beans (11g/cup)
- Whole grains, including oats (16g/cup), quinoa (5.2g/cup) and brown rice (3.5g/cup)
Keep track of your fiber intake for a while to see how you’re doing — reading food labels can help. Begin by replacing processed foods, such as white bread and rice, with whole-grain products. Then add fiber in the form of fruit, vegetables or legumes. Increase by just one serving at a time and then wait a few days before adding more. This can help prevent uncomfortable side effects, such as gas and diarrhea.
Limit red meat and processed meat
The American Cancer Society has long recommended a diet that limits processed meat and red meat. Experts note that:
- Eating 50 grams (about four strips of bacon or one hot dog) of processed meat every day increased the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent.
- For red meat, there was evidence of an increased risk of colorectal, pancreatic, and prostate cancer.
This doesn’t mean you should swear off sirloin, sausage and salami forever. But if you consume these types of foods every day or most days of the week, it might be time to consider a change. Try:
- Eating more chicken and fish
- Experimenting with plant-based recipes
- Incorporating other good sources of protein in your diet, such as nuts, seeds, beans, lentils, peas and whole grains
Stay away from added sugars
Researchers have found that people who suffer from ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease often have diets that are high in sugar and low in fiber. Foods that are high in sugar can lead to obesity, which in turn can cause problems with the colon.
The solution for many people is to limit sugar intake to 25 grams or less each day. This doesn’t include naturally occurring sugars, such as those found in fruits. Many people have found that lowering their sugar intake and increasing the amount of fiber they consume helps significantly with their gut health.
Know the warning signs of colon disease
What you eat has a major impact on your colon health. But it isn’t the only factor — your family history, physical fitness, age and alcohol consumption also play a role. The following symptoms could indicate problems with your digestive health:
- A persistent change in your bowel habits, including diarrhea or constipation, or a change in the consistency of your stool
- Rectal bleeding or blood in your stool
- Frequent abdominal cramps, gas or pain
- A feeling that your bowel doesn't empty completely
- Blood in the stool
- Unexplained weight loss
- Fatigue, tiredness or weakness
By maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle and talking to your doctor about any concerning symptoms, you can rest assured that you are doing all you can to keep your colon happy in the years to come.
Learn more and find a doctor
If you are experiencing digestive issues or want to learn more about taking care of your digestive health, contact the Swedish Digestive Health Institute. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.
With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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