The incidence rates of colon cancer are high in North America and northern Europe, lower in southern Europe, and much lower in Asia and Africa. It is widely believed that environmental factors, particularly dietary patterns, account for most of this marked variation in rates. Over the past decade, a large number of case-control and cohort studies have added a substantial body of evidence regarding our understanding of the causes of colon cancer. Although the data are not entirely consistent, several important risk factors have emerged. The epidemiological evidence that physical inactivity or excess energy intake relative to requirements increases risk of this malignancy is quite strong. Intake of red meat appears to increase risk, but protein-rich sources other than red meat probably do not elevate risk and may even reduce the occurrence of colon cancer. Dietary fat, at least that from sources other than red meat, does not appear to increase risk appreciably. High consumption of vegetables and fruits and the avoidance of highly refined sugar containing foods are likely to reduce risk of colon cancer, although the responsible constituents remain unclear. Alcohol intake may enhance risk of cancers of the distal colorectum, although the evidence is not entirely consistent. The influence of alcohol may be particularly strong when combined with a diet low in methionine and folate, suggesting that the effect of alcohol may be through antagonism of methyl-group metabolism. The combined effect of these dietary factors, as well as modifiable non-dietary factors such as cigarette smoking, suggest that the majority of cases of colon cancer are preventable.