What are other important symptoms to watch for?
If someone loses weight unintentionally, that is alarming. When people say ‘Hey, I lost 20 pounds this year and I really don’t know why,’ that gets my attention.
Excessive fatigue and change in bowel habits are also important to look for. A lot of women, and people in general, don’t talk about their bowel habits. But if the stool looks different, if it’s more frequent or less frequent, or looser or firmer, or you’re having difficulty having bowel movements, you should pay attention to that. Most people know their bodies, and if you notice a change that persists beyond a few days, again, don’t assume everything is fine.
When women are premenopausal, they might experience a change in their GI habits, so that can be difficult to distinguish, but it’s better to err on the side of caution and speak to your doctor.
The alarm bells that something could be wrong in your colon are blood in the stool, change in bowel habits that persist beyond a few days, worsening abdominal pain, unintentional weight loss, and a dramatic decrease in appetite.
What’s important to know about the relationship between diet and colorectal health?
Foods that are rich in fiber are thought to be protective in terms of your risk for developing colon polyps or colon cancer. Think fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grains, and plant-based foods.
The importance of fiber in gastrointestinal health and the relationship between nutrition and colorectal cancer risk cannot be stressed enough. Most people in the U.S. do not eat enough fiber. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 25 grams of fiber for women a day and 38 for men; most people in the country average only 16 grams a day.
Additionally, I think a lot of women have a fraught relationship with food. Diet culture, which has impacted many women, is focused on restricting what you eat, versus eating what’s good for you. A diet rich in fiber is satisfying and also healthy for you — healthy for your colon, metabolism, and weight management. You shouldn’t feel hungry all the time to be eating healthy; you should feel satisfied. Fiber, feeling satiated and full from nutritious, whole-grain, and fiber-rich foods, is what we talk to patients about. That will also help with your bowel movements.
How can people add more fiber to their diets?
I love oranges and apples; my fruit basket at home is overflowing with them. I tell people to go to the produce section at the grocery store, hang around there and see what looks good. Focus on adding fiber in the diet through food; don’t worry about supplements. Try to have some variety of fruits and vegetables in your diet. If you hate asparagus or Brussels sprouts, don’t do that; find something that appeals to you.
You can also add chia, flax, or hemp seed to your food to increase your fiber intake. Add a teaspoon to a smoothie, yogurt, cereal, or a salad — you can’t taste it, but you’ve added 5 grams of fiber to that snack or meal.
Aim for about five to nine servings of fruit and vegetables a day. It does take some planning each week to get more fiber in your diet, but the rewards are so worth it.
What else can people do to protect their colorectal health?
Overall, trust your gut, no pun intended! If you think there’s something wrong, if you think there’s something different going on in your body, it’s way better to go in and be evaluated and reassured that everything is OK than to ignore something potentially worrisome. Don’t be embarrassed to come to your doctor and talk about your GI symptoms and your poop. That’s what we’re here for. We want to help people and keep people safe — you are not meant to triage your own medical symptoms when we have resources here for you.
And, of course, get screened. No matter who you are or your risk, once you turn 45 you need to get screened.
Learn more about your digestive health and colorectal cancer screening.