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Nutrición Hospitalaria

On-line version ISSN 1699-5198Print version ISSN 0212-1611

Nutr. Hosp. vol.20 n.3 Madrid May./Jun. 2005



Nutritional risks and colorectal cancer in a portuguese population

P. Ravasco*, I. Monteiro-Grillo*,**, P. Marqués Vidal* y M.ª E. Camilo*

*Unit of Nutrition and Metabolism, Institute of Molecular Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon, Avenida Prof. Egas Moniz 1649-028 Lisboa, Portugal. **Radiotherapy Department of the Santa Maria University Hospital, Avenida Prof. Egas Moniz 1649-035 Lisboa, Portugal and Unit of Nutrition and Metabolism, Institute of Molecular Medicine of the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Lisbon, Avenida Prof. Egas Moniz 1649-028 Lisboa, Portugal.



Background: Food and nutrition as major causes of colorectal cancer (CRC) are still debatable.
Aim of the Study: This cross-sectional study in a Portuguese population aimed to characterize and identify "high-risk" diets/life-styles and explore their associations with colorectal cancer.
: In 70 colorectal cancer patients and 70 sex, age-matched subjects without cancer history, we evaluated: diet history and detailed nutrient intake (DIET-PLAN5 2002, UK), alcohol (amount, type, years), smoking (number packages/year, years), physical activity, co-morbidities and body mass index. Age-adjusted Relative Risks were calculated, Proportional Hazards models adjusted the analysis for multiple risk factors.
: Smoking was a risk factor (1.90). Increased colorectal cancer risk regarding the lowest vs the highest intake quartile emerged for: vitamin B12 (3.41), cholesterol (3.15), total fat (2.87), saturated fat (1.98), animal protein (1.95), energy (1.85), alcohol (1.70), iron (1.49), refined carbohydrates (1.39). Reduced colorectal cancer risk for the highest vs the lowest intake quartile was found for: n-3 fatty acids (0.10), insoluble fiber/folate (0.15), flavonoids/vitamin E (0.25), isoflavones/
ß-carotene (0.30), selenium (0.36), copper (0.41), vitamin B6 (0.46).
: Our results corroborated well-established risk factors and identified emergent nutrients. Prolonged excessive intake of macronutrients and some micronutrients concurrent with marked deficits of fiber and protective compounds were dominant in colorectal cancer and more significant than alcohol and smoking. The interaction diet- colorectal cancer is consistent and the relevance of new nutrients is emerging.

(Nutr Hosp 2005, 20:165-172)

Key words: Colorectal cancer. Risk factors. Diet. Nutrients. Alcohol. Tobacco.



Antecedentes: Se sigue debatiendo el que los alimentos y la nutrición sean causas principales en el cáncer colorrectal (CCR).
Objetivo del estudio
: Este estudio transversal en una población portuguesa tenía como objetivo caracterizar e identificar las dietas/estilos de vida de "riesgo elevado" y explorar sus asociaciones con el cáncer colorrectal.
: En 70 pacientes con cáncer colorrectal y en 70 individuos sin antecedentes de cáncer, emparejados por edad y sexo, evaluamos: los antecedentes dietéticos y la ingestión detallada de nutrientes (DIETPLAN5 2002, RU), alcohol (cantidad, tipo, años), tabaquismo (número de paquetes/año, años), la actividad física, las enfermedades concomitantes, y el índice de masa corporal. Se calcularon los riesgos relativos ajustados por edad, y los modelos de riesgos proporcionales ajustaron el análisis para múltiples factores de riesgo.
: El tabaquismo fue un factor de riesgo (1,90). Destacaba un riesgo aumentado para cáncer colorrectal con respecto a los cuartiles de ingestión inferior frente al superior para: vitamina B12 (3,41), colesterol (3,15), grasa total (2,87), grasa saturada (1,98), proteína animal (1,95), energía (1,85), alcohol (1,70), hierro (1,49), carbohidratos refinados (1,39). Se halló un riesgo disminuido para cáncer colorrectal con respecto al cuartil de ingestión superior frente al inferior para: ácidos grasos n-3 (0,10), fibra insoluble/folatos (0,15), flavonoides/vitamina E (0,25), isoflavonas/
ß-caroteno (0,30), selenio (0,36), cobre (0,41), vitamina B6 (0,46).
: Nuestros resultados corroboraban los factores de riesgo bien establecidos e identificaron nuevos nutrientes. La ingestión excesiva prolongada de macronutrientes y algunos micronutrientes concomitantemente con deficiencias marcadas de fibra y componentes protectores eran dominantes en el cáncer colorrectal y más significativos que el alcohol y el tabaquismo. La interacción dieta-cáncer colorrectal es coherente y emerge la relevancia de nuevos nutrientes.

(Nutr Hosp 2005, 20:165-172)

Palabras clave: Cáncer colorrectal. Factores de riesgo. Dieta. Nutrientes. Alcohol. Tabaco.

Correspondence: Paula Ravasco
Unidade de Nutrição e Metabolismo
Instituto de Medicina Molecular
Faculdade de Medicina de Lisboa
Avda. Prof. Egas Moniz
1649-028 Lisboa (Portugal)

Recibido: 21-IX-2004.
Aceptado: 15-XI-2004.


Dietary epidemiology worldwide ascribes the incidence of about a third of cancers to nutritional factors1,2; their identification in different geographical areas is a priority since about 50% of cancers are estimated to be preventable by adequate nutrition and body weight, regular physical activity and tobacco abstention1,3. Notwithstanding individual genetics, nutrient-gene interactions and nutrient-modulated gene expression may further explain cancer incidence and progression4-7.

For colorectal cancer (CRC) some nutritional components are putatively accepted as risk factors, e.g. refined carbohydrates8 and lipids9, whereas protein and alcohol are still controversial10-14; conversely, other nutrients are regarded as protectors, e.g. insoluble fiber15,16 and micronutrients17-19.

The increasing incidence of colorectal cancer (CRC) in Portugal calls for objective dietary epidemiological data. Thus, our main purpose was to address this issue and investigate potential indicative patterns with both clinical and Public Health relevance. This study aimed to characterize and identify the prevalence of high-risk life-styles and diet patterns, based on detailed food composition analysis in all classical and recently identified bioactive food constituents, and their associations with colorectal cancer.

Materials and methods

This cross-sectional study approved by the University Hospital Ethics Committee was conducted in accordance with the Helsinki Declaration of 1975 as revised in 1983, and designed to characterize and identify the prevalence of high-risk life-styles and diet patterns and their associations with colorectal cancer. All participants gave their informed consent and individual data were registered in forms preconceived for statistical analysis.


Between July 2000 and January 2002, all consecutive ambulatory patients with CRC referred to the Radiotherapy Department (n = 70) were considered eligible. For every patient the clinical and CRC family history, and co-morbidities were registered. Diagnosis was established by histology and imaging methods, according to the TNM classification (American Joint Committee on Cancer)20. The control population was recruited at community health centers or amongst administrative/technical hospital staff, and consisted of 70 randomly selected subjects without any cancer history, matched for sex and age, the latter stratified in 5-year intervals; only subjects with no reported recent weight changes or dietary restrictions were included.

Life-styles and nutritional status

 Height was obtained with a stadiometer and weight was determined with a calibrated floor Jofre® scale. Body mass index (BMI) was calculated and categorized as severe malnutrition ( 16 kg/m2), malnutrition (> 16-19 kg/m2), adequate ( 20-25 kg/m2), overweight (> 25-30 kg/m2), stage 1 obesity (> 30-35 kg/m2), stage 2 obesity (> 35-40 kg/m2) and stage 3 obesity (> 40 kg/m2)21. Jackson's questionnaire categorized physical activity level in a 0 to 7 scale, ranging from "did not perform any regular intense physical exercise or leisure activity" to "did perform regular intense physical exercise"22. According to the previous and present smoking habits, subjects were defined as non-smokers (never or occasional consumption) or smokers (regular consumption >10 years even if not currently consuming); number of packages per day, duration of consumption (years) and the total number of packages per year was calculated.

Dietary pattern

The diet history method (including alcohol consumption) comprising a 24-hour recall food questionnaire, a food frequency questionnaire and a 72-hours diet diary (2 week days and 1 weekend day)23,24 was always used; the same registered research dietician (PR) interviewed all subjects who were also questioned on the use of dietary supplements. The software DIETPLAN version 5 for Windows (Forestfield software Ltd 2002, Horsham, UK) was used to analyze nutrient contents of foodstuffs and meals. In what concerns alcohol consumption, the duration (years), type of alcoholic beverages and intake frequency were registered, the usual intake amounts were quantified by using photographic models25, and the total alcohol intake was calculated (expressed in grams per day). Total nutrient and alcohol intake were compared with the Dietary Recommended Intake (DRI)26,27; for flavonoids or isoflavones, lacking established DRI, comparisons were based on median intakes and the average content of rich dietary sources. Nutritional intake analysis comprised the foods/nutrients classically associated with CRC and "new" components, whose relevance has been recently suggested in vitro.

Statistical Analysis

Statistical analysis was conducted using SPSS 10.0 (SPSS Inc, Chicago, USA) and EPI-Info 2000 (CDC, Atlanta, USA). Parametrical (Students't) and non-parametrical (Wilcoxon) tests determined differences in nutritional status and life-style variables between cases and controls. Correlations were assessed by Spearman rank method. For both food and total nutrient intake, subjects were categorized according to quartiles of intake. We used relative risk as a measure of association, defined as the incidence of CRC in each food intake quartile, divided by the corresponding rate among the subjects on the lowest quartile. Age-adjusted relative risks were calculated after stratification according to 5-year categories. Proportional hazards models were used to adjust for multiple risk factors simultaneously (age, BMI, CRC family history, tobacco, physical activity, co-morbidities). In addition stratified analyses were conducted to determine whether the influence of nutritional intake was modified by other risk factors for CRC. All P values are two-sided. To evaluate the influence of measurement error on our findings, we used a correction procedure that adjusts the relative risks and confidence intervals to account for errors in assessing nutritional intake28. For all statistics, significance was accepted at the 5% probability level.


Characteristics of the study population are shown in table I; subjects with type II diabetes mellitus and/or hypertension were just treated with drug therapy and did not follow any specific diet. There was an overall trend associating a lower BMI to higher level of physical activity (p = 0.09) though the latter was unrelated to CRC risk. In what concerns smoking there were 29 current smokers amongst CRC patients and 8 amongst controls, all female patients and controls were non-smokers; there was a smoking-associated relative risk of 1.90 (1.86-1.97). None of the participants was taking nutritional supplements.

Age-adjusted and multivariate analyses showed that both the diet pattern and the intake of specific nutrients were strongly associated with the incidence of CRC, in the highest as compared with the lowest quartile, tables II, III and IV. In multivariate analyses, each increment of 4 servings per week of red meat, smoked salted pork products and 100g of alcohol corresponded to an increased relative risk of 1.29 (95% CI: 1.21-1.34). In what concerns nutrients, each increment of at least 50% in the weekly intake of protein, total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, refined carbohydrates, iron, vitamin B12,sodium and alcohol corresponded to an increased relative risk of 1.53 (95% CI: 1.47-1.59). Conversely, the increment of 4 servings per day of green leafy vegetables, fruits and fish corresponded to a decreased relative risk of 0.35 (95% CI: 0.29-0.41). Each increment of at least 50% in the weekly intake of n-3 fatty acids, insoluble fibber, vitamin E, flavonoids, isoflavones, ß-carotene, folate and selenium corresponded to a decreased relative risk of 0.31 (95% CI: 0.26-0.37). Further nutrient analysis in patients identified several differences between current intake and the DRI, tables V and  VI. The median intake of flavonoids and isoflavones was also significantly lower (p = 0.001) than the comparison value.


Nutrition is a putative though controversial risk factor for CRC. This prospective study thoroughly investigated epidemiological data previously unknown in Portugal. The diet of "healthy subjects" was indeed similar to the Mediterranean pattern1,29, 30, unlike CRC patients' monotonous and unbalanced diet, characterized by high risk nutritional deficits and surpluses. Patients' diet was characterized by frequent and excessive consumption of red meat and processed meat products resulting in excessive intake of animal protein, saturated fat, cholesterol, vitamin B12 and haem iron; likewise, refined carbohydrates and alcohol consumption was overabundant. Conversely, the intake of fruits and vegetables was lower than the recommended 5-9 daily portions31 with subsequent deficits of insoluble fiber, vitamins, minerals and other protective compounds, e.g. flavonoids29,32 and isoflavones33; the intake of fish and n-3 fatty acids was also very low. This diet pattern was associated with smoking habits in 45% of patients and with low physical activity in 77%, though the latter was unrelated to CRC risk unlike previously suggested34,35. Among life-style risk factors, several case-control studies demonstrated a consistent association between tobacco consumption and CRC35-37; our results are only concordant in men since women were non-smokers. CRC risk associated with alcohol abuse is controversial14,38, 39, potentially enhanced by concurrent vita-min deficits; in this study women were teetotal, thus alcohol was a risk factor just for men whose diets were also markedly deficient in various vitamins, similarly to what we have previously shown40,41.

Epidemiological data concerning energy intake and CRC have been inconsistent, excessive energy intake and increased risk42 versus no risk43. In our study, high energy intake represented an 85% increase of CRC risk, and energy sources, e.g. total fat and refined carbohydrates, which independently represented 187% and 79% increased risk, respectively; this association is consistent with their pro-carcinogenic effect on colorectal cell lines9,44. The association between excessive protein intake and CRC has been inconsistent, no risk11,12 versus increased risk10, the latter was corroborated by our study; the citotoxicity of protein metabolism end products may act as a carcinogenesis promoter45.

A marked reduction of CRC risk associated with frequent fish consumption and n-3 fatty acids was a major novelty of this study; its relevance may bear to their anti-inflammatory effects46 and potential pro-apoptotic properties47.

A high intake of insoluble fiber is consistently recommended given its ascribed direct48-50 and indirect protective roles8,51. CRC patients' diet was markedly deficient in insoluble fiber that whenever consumed according to recommendations31 is expected to result in an 85% risk reduction.

Deficits of antioxidants are likely to promote oxidative stress and carcinogenesis52. Patients' diet contained a marked surplus of haem iron associated with free radicals production53, while the concurrent vitamin E deficit forbear their protective effects54-56. Epidemiology also reports an association between low blood α-tocopherol concentrations and increased CRC risk57, our study is however the first to show that an adequate intake of vitamin E is associated with 75% reduced risk. Selenium, seldom evaluated58, now revealed a protective effect. Flavonoids are a hot research topic due to their antioxidant59, pro-apoptotic properties60, and cell proliferation inhibitory effect61; this study first shows epidemiological data on their protective effect with 75% risk reduction. Fruits and vegetables, main sources of vitamin C and ß-carotene, are rich in numerous beneficial compounds62-64; indeed a significant protective effect higher than 60% was attributed to an adequate intake of green leafy vegetables, fruits and legumes.

In spite of the potential physiological properties of isoflavones33,65, exclusively conveyed by vegetables, our study is so far the first to have identified a significant protective effect against CRC.

Epidemiological evidence associates folate deficiencies to CRC incidence, since chronically deficient diets determine DNA hypomethylation and chromosomic alterations (66, 67). Two studies showed a modest risk increase associated with prolonged deficits of vitamin B6, methionine, folate and vitamin B1268,69. Notwithstanding the lack of data related to excessive intake, vitamin B12 in excess may compete with folate on the remethylation cycle and determine DNA hypomethylation19. In CRC patients' diet, vitamin B6 and folate was >3 times below the DRI whereas vitamin B12 in-take was 3 times higher the DRI; both deficit and surplus were associated with >70% increased risk.

Despite the study's limitations related to its sample size, data were adjusted for all recognized confounding variables and still pinpointed nutrients identified worldwide since 1982 as risk factors for CRC27 and reinforced the protective of others, whilst disclosing emerging protective nutrients33,59, 60. Given the worldwide high and increasing incidence of CRC, investigations of nutrient-carcinogenesis interactions are warranted to further stress the relevance of preventive nutrition.


We are indebted to the medical, nursing and technical staff of the Radiotherapy Department of the Hospital of Santa Maria.


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