Colorectal cancer is a major cause of cancer mortality and is considered to be largely attributable to inappropriate lifestyle and behavior patterns. The purpose of this review was to undertake a comparison of the strength of the associations between known and putative risk factors for colorectal cancer by conducting 10 independent meta-analyses of prospective cohort studies. Studies published between 1966 and January 2008 were identified through EMBASE and MEDLINE, using a combined text word and MESH heading search strategy. Studies were eligible if they reported estimates of the relative risk for colorectal cancer with any of the following: alcohol, smoking, diabetes, physical activity, meat, fish, poultry, fruits and vegetables. Studies were excluded if the estimates were not adjusted at least for age. Overall, data from 103 cohort studies were included. The risk of colorectal cancer was significantly associated with alcohol: individuals consuming the most alcohol had 60% greater risk of colorectal cancer compared with non- or light drinkers (relative risk 1.56, 95% CI 1.42-1.70). Smoking, diabetes, obesity and high meat intakes were each associated with a significant 20% increased risk of colorectal cancer (compared with individuals in the lowest categories for each) with little evidence of between-study heterogeneity or publication bias. Physical activity was protective against colorectal cancer. Public-health strategies that promote modest alcohol consumption, smoking cessation, weight loss, increased physical activity and moderate consumption of red and processed meat are likely to have significant benefits at the population level for reducing the incidence of colorectal cancer.