Studies have linked the high-carbohydrate Western diet to colorectal cancer, but scientists have been unsure of just how carbs may trigger the development of the disease. In a recent study published in the journal Cell, researchers discovered that microbes inside the gut are able to metabolize carbohydrates from food in such a way that causes intestinal cells to form tumors.

Using an animal model of mice genetically prone to develop colorectal cancer, researchers found that the mice fed a low-carbohydrate diet or given antibiotics had significantly less tumors than those on a typical Western diet. The fact that antibiotics had an effect is evidence that gut microbes play a central role. The study suggests that a low-carbohydrate diet could prevent a common type of colorectal cancer in humans.

“Because hereditary colorectal cancer is associated with aggressive and rapid tumor development, it is critical to understand how major environmental factors such as microbes and diet interact with genetic factors to potentially affect disease progression,” noted Alberto Martin, PhD, lead researcher.

Almost one in 15 Westerners will develop colorectal cancer, a disease that occurs in much higher rates in countries that have switched to a Western-style diet. Although a highly treatable disease when caught early, without regular screening it can go undetected. Hopefully this study leads to more insight about how it can be prevented in the first place.

“By providing a direct link between genetics and gut microbes, our findings suggest that a diet reduced in carbohydrates as well as alterations in the intestinal microbial community could be beneficial to those individuals who are genetically predisposed to colorectal cancer,” stated Martin.

Studies in humans will hopefully follow this research. In the meantime, a low-carbohydrate diet might not be a bad idea for people genetically prone to colon cancer. The low-carbohydrate diet should include plenty of nonstarchy vegetables and low-sugar fruits that provide plenty of fiber and phytonutrients.