Keep your digestive tract happy and healthy with a colon-friendly diet


In this article:

  • A nutrient-dense, high-fiber diet can prevent many diseases of the colon.

  • Consume less red meat, including processed meats

  • Incorporate more calcium and vitamin D into your diet

  • A Providence physician explains factors that can affect colon health

Your colon is an amazing organ that works around the clock, digesting everything you eat and sending waste products to their final destination. 

Most of the time your colon chugs away quietly. But don’t take it for granted! Your colon depends on you to keep it as healthy as possible. A nutrient-dense, high-fiber diet can help. This can keep the walls of your colon strong, and also prevent cancer and other conditions such as constipation and diverticulitis.

Get to know your colon

The colon — sometimes called the large intestine or large bowel—is about five feet long and three inches in diameter. It’s in the middle of your body’s digestive tract, nestled between the small intestine and rectum.

Source: National Institutes of Health 

Food enters the colon from the small intestine, which absorbs most of the vitamins and minerals from what we eat and drink. The colon creates stool and sends it to its next stop, the rectum.

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), 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.

What about fiber supplements?

Eating a diet that’s rich in fiber is the best way to get your daily recommended amount of this important nutrient. That’s because fiber-rich foods contain additional vitamins and minerals that supplements don’t.

But if you’re having trouble reaching your daily goal, even with eating healthy foods, fiber supplements can be helpful, with these tips in mind:

  • Start with small amounts to minimize problems with gas.
  • Drink plenty of fluids every day.
  • Talk to your doctor first if you have intestinal problems, such as a history of a bowel blockage or Crohn's disease. Ditto if you take medications (even aspirin) since fiber supplements could interact with them.

Limit red meat and processed meat

The American Cancer Society has long recommended a diet that limits processed meat and red meat. Citing research from the World Health Organization, 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

Consume more calcium and vitamin D

The American Cancer Society says that getting the recommended daily amounts of calcium and vitamin D may help reduce your risk of colorectal cancer. 

The recommended amount of calcium for most adults is 1,000 milligrams (mg) per day and increases to 1,200 mg per day for women over 50 and men over 70. Good sources of calcium include:

  • Milk and dairy products. A cup of low-fat yogurt has 45 mg of calcium, a cup of skim milk has 300 mg and an ounce of cheddar cheese has 200 mg.
  • Almonds have 160 mg per half-cup.
  • Tofu has 435 mg per half-cup.

How much vitamin D you need depends on many factors, including your age, race and sun exposure. A daily vitamin D intake of 1000–4000 international units (IU), should be enough for most people.

To increase your vitamin D with the foods you eat, try incorporating more:

  • Wild-caught salmon, which has almost 1,000 IU per 3.5 ounce serving, and canned tuna, which has about 250 IU in a 3.5-ounce serving
  • Egg yolks, which contain 37 IU of vitamin D each
  • Cod and fish liver oils, which have about 450 IU per teaspoon

Calcium and vitamin D have the added benefit of promoting bone health. Check the labels on your foods - some cereals and orange juice are often fortified with these valuable vitamins and nutrients.

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.


Find a doctor

If you’re concerned about your colon health, talk to your doctor. A Providence nutritionist can help you develop a diet that’s rich in nutrients and fiber to help you maintain a healthy colon. You can find one in our provider directory. Through Providence Express Care Virtual, you can also access a full range of healthcare services. 

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Related resources

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Colorectal cancer: not just a disease for older people

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Diverticulitis may be on the rise: Diet can decrease risk

Simpler solutions may be the key to relief for irritable bowel syndrome

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

About the Author

We are all about food! The Providence Nutrition Team loves to talk about and share our expertise on how to help you find the right diet, food types and maintenance tactics to help you live life to the fullest...while also enjoying the best foods that mother nature has to offer.

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