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Can being overweight cause cancer?

May 30, 2013

It is common knowledge that being overweight or obese is associated with diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. However, too much body fat appears to increase the risk of cancer as well. In fact, the American Cancer Society Cancer Prevention Study II showed significant increases in cancer occurrence in people who are the most overweight. According to the National Cancer Institute, several different types of cancers are linked to obesity. These include cancer of the uterus, breast, kidney, thyroid, gallbladder, colon/rectum, pancreas, and esophagus.

Being obese appears to be a problem for cancer survivors as well

Studies have shown worse survival rates for obese women with breast cancer. Similarly, obese men with prostate cancer are more likely to have an aggressive form of cancer, and it is more likely to come back after surgery.

Particularly alarming is that more than 50 percent of Americans are either overweight or obese. Obesity is defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, while a BMI of 25 to 29 is considered overweight. The body mass index can be calculated by this formula: (weight in kilograms) / (height in meters x height in meters). BMI = Kg/m2

Obesity in America has reached epidemic proportions. More children now are overweight and obese than previously recorded in history. The National Institutes of Health recently provided a report recommending a broad approach, which includes schools, workplaces and the healthcare community, to dealing with obesity. Parents play a key role in reducing childhood obesity thereby decreasing their children’s risk of chronic diseases later on in adulthood. 

Families can employ these strategies to become healthier:

  • Promoting an active lifestyle and increasing physical activity, especially in children and adolescents
  • Limiting "screen" time: less television viewing, computer time and video gaming
  • Reducing consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, and providing healthier alternatives
  • Increasing consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and nuts
  • Limiting sugar, solid fats, and alcohol, and avoiding high-calorie junk food and sweets
  • Encouraging breastfeeding in infants and promoting healthy eating habits in children (let children regulate how much they eat, not "clean your plate")
  • Assuring children get food containing the minerals and vitamins they need to grow
The great majority of my patients with uterine (endometrial) cancer are either overweight or obese. Practically all of them have shared with me their difficulties with losing weight. I therefore, almost always recommend a weight loss program or support group. “There is no reason to do this alone,” I often tell them.

Whether the goal is cancer prevention, cancer survivorship, being healthy or having a healthy family, physical activity and a healthy diet are the key. Individuals who have a normal weight (neither underweight nor overweight) tend to have less diseases in general, including cancer.