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Eating Foods High in Vitamin D Could Help Lower Colon Cancer Risk, Study Says

vitamin d foods

Key Takeaways

  • A new study suggests the effect of eating more foods with vitamin D could be especially pronounced in younger people, who are seeing increased colon cancer rates.
  • Younger people also tend to be diagnosed with later-stage cancers, which are harder to treat.
  • Getting vitamin D from food rather than supplements is preferred, researchers noted, especially because that may help absorption.

Eating foods high in vitamin D may help lower the risk of colorectal cancer, especially for those under age 50, according to a study in the journal Gastroenterology. This finding is particularly important since colon cancer rates are growing among young people.

“These findings suggest vitamin D may be important for younger people in terms of colorectal cancer prevention, not just those who are older,” says study co-author Kimmie Ng, MD, director of the Young-Onset Colorectal Cancer Center at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

About The Study

Researchers looked at data from nearly 95,000 women participating in the Nurses’ Health Study II. This study focuses on long-term research into factors for major chronic diseases, including the effects of nutrition, work-life balance, hormones, and environment.

Looking at nutritional data, the researchers found that those who reported more consumption of foods with high amounts of vitamin D had a 50% lower risk of developing young-onset colorectal cancer than those who consumed lower amounts of the vitamin. They were also less prone to the development of colon polyps, which have been associated with a higher risk for cancer.

Kimmie Ng, MD

These findings suggest vitamin D may be important for younger people in terms of colorectal cancer prevention, not just those who are older.

— Kimmie Ng, MD

Dr. Ng indicates that there is already abundant laboratory data that vitamin D may possess anti-cancer activity. Applying those findings to colorectal cancer prevention for younger people could be one more way to lower risk.

Need for More Strategies

Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer in men and women (excluding certain skin cancers), the general rate of incidence has been declining in the past couple of decades.

Many experts believe that this decline is due to more effective screening—including newer recommendations that screening should start at age 45—as well as better adoption of lifestyle changes like exercise and healthy eating.

However, that drop in cancer incidence doesn’t apply to younger people, and the screening age change is a reaction to the rise in these cancers among people under age 50. That uptick has been particularly notable between 2010 and 2020, which is part of what’s driving research toward finding prevention strategies, Ng says.

Yi-Qian Nancy You, MD, MHSc, FACS

About 60% of these young patients are diagnosed with stage III and IV colorectal cancer.

— Yi-Qian Nancy You, MD, MHSc, FACS

If the current trends continue, it is likely that colon cancer will increase by 90% in people under age 35, and rectal cancer could increase by about 125% by the year 2030, according to Yi-Qian Nancy You, MD, MHSc, FACS, a professor in the department of colon and rectal surgery at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at The University of Texas.

“In addition, about 60% of these young patients are diagnosed with stage III and IV colorectal cancer,” she says. “That means their cancer is being found later, when it’s harder to treat.”

In terms of potential causes, it is still unknown why younger people are seeing such a rapid increase, You says. About 20% may have a family history, putting them at higher risk, but she adds that there are no answers yet about what’s causing disease in the other 80%.

Looking Toward Nutrition

Another notable aspect of the research was that supplements didn’t seem as effective as food-based sources. This may be due to the fact that vitamin D is fat-soluble, which means it needs at least some fat to be absorbed.

For example, those in the study who had more dairy products tended to have a lower risk, likely because the fat in those foods would help with vitamin D usage. Plus, foods have a range of other compounds that work together to support health, says Seema Bonney, MD, founder of the Antiaging and Longevity Center of Philadelphia.

“Whenever possible, choose food first over supplements,” she says. “That way, you get the full range of vitamins, minerals, and fiber.”

Additionally, people of any age can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer as well as many other cancers, You says, by being physically active and getting the recommended 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise weekly. Other preventative measures include limiting alcohol, not smoking, limiting red meat and processed meat, and eating more fruits and vegetables.

What This Means For You

Eating foods high in vitamin D could help younger people prevent colorectal cancer, which is on the rise in people under age 50. Remember, getting vitamin D from food sources when possible is preferred because that may aid absorption. If you suspect that you are low in vitamin D, talk to a healthcare provider about having your vitamin D levels checked and discuss how you can go about adding more of this important vitamin to your diet.

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  1. Kim H, Lipsyc-Sharf M, Zong X, et al. Total vitamin D intake and risks of early-onset colorectal cancer and precursorsGastroenterology, 2021. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2021.07.002

  2. Skrajnowska D, Bobrowska-Korczak B. Potential molecular mechanisms of the anti-cancer activity of vitamin D. Anticancer Res. 2019;39(7):3353-3363. doi:10.21873/anticanres.13478

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Colorectal cancer statistics. Updated June 8, 2021.

  4. American Cancer Society. Key statistics for colorectal cancer. Updated January 12, 2021.

  5. U.S. Preventative Services Task Force. Colorectal cancer screening. Updated May 18, 2021.