Colorectal epithelial cell proliferative kinetics are altered in patients at increased risk for colon cancer: proliferation rates [labeling index (LI)] are higher and there is a shift of the proliferative zone from one confined to the lower 60% of the colonic crypt to one that includes the entire crypt (higher phi(h)). To assess factors associated with LI and phi(h), we performed a cross-sectional analysis using baseline rectal mucosal biopsies from sporadic adenoma patients participating in a chemoprevention trial. Biopsies (taken without preparatory cleansing) were taken 10 cm above the level of the anus, and proliferation was assessed by detection of endogenous S-phase-associated proliferating cell nuclear antigen by immunohistochemical methods. High-quality, scorable biopsies were obtained for 115 patients, and using analysis of covariance and multiple linear regression, the LI and phi(h) were evaluated in relation to diet and other lifestyle factors, demographics, anthropometrics, family history of colon cancer, and polyp history. Statistically significant findings included the following: (a) The LI for those in the upper versus the lowest tertile of vegetable and fruit consumption was, proportionately, 35% lower (3.4% versus 5.3%; P < 0.001); for vitamin supplement users versus nonusers, it was 36% lower (3.3 versus 5.2%; P < 0.001); for recurrent versus incident polyp patients, it was 36% higher (6.2 versus 4.0%; P < 0.001); and for those with rectal polyps only versus those with colon polyps only, it was 28% higher (6.0 versus 4.3%; P = 0.05); and (b) the phi(h) for those in the upper versus the lowest tertile of sucrose consumption was, proportionately, 48% higher (7.1% versus 3.7%; P = 0.01). These results indicate that (a) colorectal epithelial cell proliferation rates are higher in recurrent adenoma patients than in incident adenoma patients and in patients with rectal adenomas only versus those with colon adenomas only, but they are lower in patients with higher intakes of vegetables and fruit and in those who take vitamin/mineral supplements, and (b) the distribution of proliferating cells is shifted toward more inclusion of the upper 40% of the crypt in patients with higher intakes of sucrose. The pattern of positive, negative, and null associations of potential risk factors with cell proliferation is similar to that commonly found with colonic neoplasms.