Eating Yogurt May Reduce Your Colorectal Cancer Risk, Research Shows

Woman eating a yogurt.

Brogues Cozens-Mcneelance / EyeEm / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Studies show that those who consume yogurt appear to have a reduced risk of developing colon cancer years later.
  • Probiotics found in fermented foods like yogurt may play a key role in colon cancer risk reduction. 

The frequency of dairy yogurt consumption was associated with a reduced risk of proximal colon cancer decades later, according to a new analysis of previous studies. The findings were published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in December.

“It is great to see that more amazing food choices, like yogurt, are not only a great choice for patients, but also to help reduce risk,” Nichole Giller, RD, LD, CSO, oncology dietitian at the George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C., who was not involved in the research, tells Verywell.  She adds that “current risk factors for colorectal cancer include low serum vitamin D levels and low calcium intake, which ties into these results of having foods higher in those nutrients (like yogurt) to help reduce risk.”

Overall, yogurt consumption was associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer, even after adjusting for potential confounders like increased calcium intake. “The results showed that baseline yogurt consumption of one serving per week versus zero servings per week was associated with a reduced risk of colon cancer 26 to 32 years later,” Anne Agler, PhD, senior vice president of nutrition research at the National Dairy Council, tells Verywell.  

The Research

To evaluate risk reduction, researchers used data from two large, prospective cohort studies: the Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

During 32 years of follow-up in 83,054 women and 26 years of follow- up in 43,269 men, 2,666 new colorectal cancer diagnoses were found within these subjects (1,965 colon and 579 rectal cancers). Yogurt consumption was assessed via a food frequency questionnaire.

Unfortunately, no statistically significant trend was observed between yogurt consumption and reduced colorectal cancer mortality.

It is important to note that participants with more frequent yogurt consumption also:

  • Were more physically active
  • Were more likely to have had a colonoscopy
  • Were more likely to use multivitamins
  • Had lower alcohol intake
  • Ate less frequent red and processed meat
  • Had a higher intake of vitamin D when compared with those who did not consume a lot of yogurts

These factors may also play a positive role in colorectal cancer risk reduction. At least in the case of this data, yogurt eaters participated in other cancer risk-reducing lifestyle choices, which introduces the question of whether it was the actual yogurt or the overall healthy lifestyle that resulted in risk reduction. 

“With any single study, it is important to consider how it fits within the context of the body of evidence. For diet and cancer, in this case colon cancer, that is also true,” Agler says. She notes that the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) and the American Institute of Cancer Research (AICR) in their Continuous Update Project (CUP) conduct systematic reviews of the research related to diet and cancer. “When it comes to colon cancer, the CUP report findings note: ‘there is strong evidence that consuming dairy products decreases the risk of colorectal cancer.'”

“Overall, this paper contributes to the broader body of evidence, providing support to the WCRF/AICR findings and reaffirms the association of dairy’s role in reducing colon cancer incidence,” Agler says.

What This Means For You

Including dairy yogurt in your diet may help reduce your risk of developing colon cancer. You can also include other foods to reduce your risk including dairy, whole grains, and foods containing dietary fiber.

Colorectal Cancer and Probiotics

Colorectal cancer (CRC) is the third most common cancer among women and men worldwide. While there are many risk factors associated with the development of this disease—including genetic predisposition, cigarette smoking, obesity, and low physical activity—diet appears to play a significant role.

Our gut microbiome is also affected by many factors, including our dietary choices. Consuming fermented foods—think yogurt, kimchi, and kefir—supplies the body with live microorganisms, or probiotics, that offer a health benefit to the host.

Probiotics enhance immune functions by preventing inflammation and producing immune-supporting elements such as short-chain fatty acids. Additionally, certain probiotic strains produce lactic acid as a by-product. Lactic acid can lower the pH in the gut and can inactivate cancer-causing substances found in the body and in the feces.

Eating fermented foods that contain certain probiotics play an important physiological role in the pathogenesis of colorectal cancer. Yogurt is among the most commonly consumed fermented foods. 

How To Reduce Your Risk of Developing Colorectal Cancer

While incorporating certain foods won't guarantee protection against colorectal cancer, it is an intervention that comes with very little risk.

Giller highlights some foods people can consume to reduce their colon cancer risk:

  • Whole grains like whole-grain bread and brown rice
  • Foods containing dietary fiber (aim for 30g fiber per day)
  • Dairy products 

She shares that consuming red meat (beyond 15-18 ounces per week) and consuming alcoholic beverages increases risk. 

Experts also recommend getting screened for colorectal cancer, avoiding cigarette smoking, and maintaining a healthy weight to reduce cancer risk.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Michels K, Willett W, Zhang X, Giovannucci E. Yogurt consumption and colorectal cancer incidence and mortality in the Nurses' Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up StudyAm J Clin Nutr. 2020 Dec 10;112(6):1566-1575. doi:10.1093/ajcn/nqaa244

  2. World Cancer Research Fund. Colorectal Cancer.

  3. Lin CS, Chang CJ, Lu CC, et al. Impact of the gut microbiota, prebiotics, and probiotics on human health and diseaseBiomed J. 2014;37(5):259–68. doi:10.4103/2319-4170.138314

  4. Kok CR, Hutkins R. Yogurt and other fermented foods as sources of health-promoting bacteriaNutr Rev. 2018;76(Suppl 1):4–15. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuy056

  5. American Cancer Society. Six Ways to Lower Your Risk for Colorectal Cancer. February 10, 2020.