Colorectal cancer (CRC) is a major cause of premature death in the UK and many developed countries. However, the risk of developing CRC is well recognised to be associated not only with diet but also with obesity and lack of exercise. While epidemiological evidence shows an association with factors such as high red meat intake and low intake of vegetables, fibre and fish, the mechanisms underlying these effects are only now being elucidated. CRC develops over many years and is typically characterised by an accumulation of mutations, which may arise as a consequence of inherited polymorphisms in key genes, but more commonly as a result of spontaneously arising mutations affecting genes controlling cell proliferation, differentiation, apoptosis and DNA repair. Epigenetic changes are observed throughout the progress from normal morphology through formation of adenoma, and the subsequent development of carcinoma. The reasons why this accumulation of loss of homoeostatic controls arises are unclear but chronic inflammation has been proposed to play a central role. Obesity is associated with increased plasma levels of chemokines and adipokines characteristic of chronic systemic inflammation, and dietary factors such as fish oils and phytochemicals have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties as well as modulating established risk factors such as apoptosis and cell proliferation. There is also some evidence that diet can modify epigenetic changes. This paper briefly reviews the current state of knowledge in relation to CRC development and considers evidence for potential mechanisms by which diet may modify risk.
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