Exploring How Food Choices Influence the Risk for Colon Cancer

Grantee: Paulette Chandler, MD, MPH
Institution: Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston 
Research Area: Carcinogenesis, Nutrition and the Environment
Grant Term: 7/1/2015 to 6/30/2020

The Challenge: What you eat may affect your risk for developing cancer. As one example, eating a traditional Western diet — a lot of red meat, processed foods, and sugary desserts — increases the risk for developing colorectal cancer. But researchers don’t know exactly what happens in the body when you eat a Western diet and how that might increase the risk for cancer. 

The Research: Paulette Chandler, MD, MPH, thinks that certain metabolites from eating a Western diet may increase the risk of colon and rectal cancers. Metabolites are substances made when the body breaks down, or metabolizes, food and drugs. She and her team are studying data from the Women’s Health Study.

Chandler and her team are looking for the unique “fingerprint” of metabolites that link them to either a Western or to a Mediterranean diet. Unlike a Western diet, a Mediterranean diet focuses on whole grains, beans, nuts, vegetables, and fruit and is linked to a lower risk of colon and rectal cancer.

Basically, Chandler is hoping to show that it’s the way the body breaks down foods from a Western diet that raises the risk of colorectal cancer, while the way the body breaks down foods from a Mediterranean diet can lower the risk. Chandler is also studying whether obesity and lack of exercise change the body’s level of these diet-related metabolites. 

The Goal and Long-term Possibilities: Chandler’s goal is to have information that will allow doctors to give people specific and personal actions that can help prevent colon and rectal cancers. The actions may involve changing what and how they eat, as well as how often they get screened for colorectal cancer.   

To learn more about Dr. Chandler's work, see: You Aren't What You Eat— You're What You Metabolize