Weight, Obesity & Cancer Risk

2021-10-12T12:05:34-05:00

Written by Susan H. Malzone, Certified Holistic Cancer Coach

You’re probably familiar with the many damaging emotional effects that carrying extra weight can have on people.  An overweight person might feel or say things like “I’m so upset – I can’t fit into my favorite jeans”, or “I’m so afraid to go to my cousin’s wedding – I don’t want to have my picture taken!”, or “I am so anxious about returning to the office – I’ve put on weight during the pandemic!”. These are some of the painful thoughts and feelings that typically motivate people to take action and start a medical weight loss plan to lose weight fast.

However, there are also many physical risks that can come from being overweight that not everyone thinks about – or cares to think about. But health problems can impact your life much more negatively than whether or not you look good in a selfie! Knee pain, back pain, arthritis, hypertension, type II diabetes, stroke, heart disease and cancer are some of the risks that increase as your weight increases. Many health conditions are in some way associated with long-term inflammation and, when the body treats inflammation as an illness and tries to repair it, this can mean more cell growth and more risk for a variety of cancers.

Can being overweight or obese really cause cancer?

Obesity is strongly associated with an increased risk of several types of cancer. In fact, an estimated 55% of all cancers in women occur in those who are overweight or obese. Being overweight or obese means your body has more fat compared to other tissue, such as muscle and bone. Too much extra weight raises your risk of certain types of cancer, as well as your risk for cancer coming back after cancer treatment.

According to research from the American Cancer Society, excess body weight is thought to be responsible for about 11% of cancers in women and about 5% of cancers in men in the United States, as well as about 7% of all cancer deaths.

How does bodyweight affect overall cancer risk?

Excess body weight may affect cancer risk in a number of ways, some of which might be specific to certain cancer types. Excess body fat might increase cancer risk by affecting:

  • Inflammation in the body
  • Cell and blood vessel growth
  • Cells’ ability to live longer than they normally would
  • Levels of certain hormones, such as insulin and estrogen, which can fuel cell growth
  • Other factors that regulate cell growth, such as insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1)
  • The ability of cancer cells to spread (metastasize)

How much does body fat affect breast cancer risk?

In a group of 100 women with a healthy weight range, approximately 9 will probably develop breast cancer at age 50 or above. In a group of 100 obese women, about 11 or 12 will probably develop breast cancer. So, being obese causes about two or three additional women out of every 100 to develop breast cancer at age 50 or above.

In fact, the more weight you gain throughout adulthood, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer later in life, especially after female menopause. Why? After menopause, women who are overweight or obese still have a supply of estrogen, when it should be decreasing. This is because estrogen is made by fatty tissue. The fat is prolonging the body’s exposure to estrogen.

Is my weight putting me at increased risk of breast cancer?

Having extra fat in the waist area may raise risk more than having extra fat in the hips and thighs. There is no specific waist circumference that can tell you if you are at increased risk for breast cancer. But, in general, if you are a woman with a waist measuring 31.5 inches or more and you are carrying excess body fat, you are at higher risk for cancer. For men, a waist measuring 37 inches or more indicates a high risk for cancer.

In addition to the risk factors listed above, most studies use BMI when looking at the relationship between breast cancer and weight. It’s easy to calculate your BMI online with a calculator by entering your height and weight. Check here: https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/lose_wt/BMI/bmicalc.htm

However, keep in mind that it’s possible to have a BMI in the normal range and have a high percentage of body fat. This is what is referred to as “skinny fat”. And emerging research shows that women with excess body fat have an increased risk of breast cancer, even if their BMI is normal. Therefore, body fat percentage is an extremely important factor associated with increased breast cancer risk.

What’s the best way to reduce my breast cancer risk?

Here are some steps you can take to reduce your lifetime risk of breast cancer:

  • Sit less and aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate exercise 5 times per week or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity each week. Do strength-training exercises twice a week.
  • Fill 2/3 of your plate with vegetables, fruits and whole grains. Fill the remaining 1/3 with very lean animal protein or plant-based protein. Keep in mind that a low cholesterol diet (low in red meat, shellfish, egg yolks and dairy) helps prevent cancer and cancer recurrence.
  • For cancer prevention, it’s best not to drink alcohol. If you do choose to drink alcohol, have no more than one drink if you are a woman and two a day if you are a man.
  • Choose to breastfeed. Try to breastfeed exclusively for six months after giving birth and continue even when other foods are introduced.
  • If your body fat percentage is above the healthy range for your age and height, make a plan to lose weight in a healthy manner.
  • Maintain a healthy weight range for as many years as possible.

Can weight loss help reduce my cancer risk?

Yes! While we still have much to learn about the link between weight loss and cancer risk, it is clear that overweight or obese people who intentionally lose weight have reduced levels of certain hormones that are related to cancer risk such as insulin, estrogens, and androgens. So, staying lean after menopause will reduce your breast cancer risk. But staying lean over a lifetime is one of the most important things you can do to protect your overall health and reduce your risk for many cancers, including breast cancer.

Beyond possibly reducing cancer risk, losing weight can have many other health benefits, such as lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes. Losing even a small amount of weight has health benefits and is a good place to start.

If you have already been diagnosed with cancer

Luckily, cancer treatment has advanced significantly in recent years. There is every reason to be filled with hope! More and more evidence suggests, however, that being overweight or obese raises the risk of cancer coming back after treatment for cancer and may lower the chances of survival for many cancers. Breast cancer survivors who are overweight have a statistically significant increased risk of developing second primary cancers, according to results from a study conducted by Kaiser Permanente researchers and published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. “This study illustrates that modifying one’s BMI may result in significant health and quality of life benefits among breast cancer survivors,” explained Clara Bodelon, PhD, MS, Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics at the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Both during and after cancer treatment, you should try to get to and stay at a healthy weight whenever possible. This should be done safely, through a well-balance diet and increased physical activity tailored to your current situation. Look for a medical weight loss center that can evaluate your body fat percentage and your healthy target range and provide a healthy eating plan and live support from professionals who understand your specific nutritional needs. They will also have menu recommendations like soups with cancer healing ingredients.

Medical weight loss can help you lose weight fast

Managing weight is a challenge for most people in the US. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 70% of American adults are overweight. Even so, it’s difficult for many people to talk about losing weight with their doctors. Reaching out to a medical weight loss clinic or medical weight loss center has many advantages.  Look for one that offers:

  • Free Weight Loss Screening (so you can meet them and make sure it’s a good fit!)
  • Advanced Body Fat Analysis (make your goals before you make your commitment)
  • One-on-One Support by friendly counselors you can talk to (so as to maximize results)
  • Innovative Weight Loss Plans (these should take into account YOUR food preferences)
  • Doctor-Prescribed Appetite Suppressants (if you qualify medically)
  • Low Carb, Low Cholesterol Food Plans (for weight loss based on healthy foods)

It’s never too late to lose weight, reduce your cancer risk and improve your health.

LivLight Weight Loss can help you lose weight no matter where you live. Schedule a Free Consultation online today (in-clinic, by phone or via zoom).

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LivLight Weight Loss products (drinks, shakes, bars, snacks, meal replacements) help support a healthy lifestyle. A Medical Weight Loss Counselor will call you before your order ships to provide details on usage.