Swimsuit season is almost here, but there’s still time to shed a few pounds before hitting the beach. Looking svelte in a brand-new bathing suit is a worthy health and fitness goal. However, there is a far more compelling reason for counting calories. According to research from the American Cancer Society (ACS), “being overweight or obese is clearly linked to an overall increased risk of cancer.”
The National Institute of Health (NIH) and their agency the National Cancer Institute describe obesity as “a disease in which a person has an unhealthy amount and/or distribution of body fat. Compared with people of healthy weight, those with overweight or obesity are at greater risk for many diseases, including diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and at least 13 types of cancer.”
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports the prevalence of obesity in the United States varies widely among racial and ethnic groups. In 2020, the non-Hispanic Black population had the highest percentage of obesity, weighing in (excuse the pun) at 49.69%, followed by non-white Hispanics, 45.6. and whites 41.1%. Asians had the lowest rate 16.01%.
The ACS says, “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.” The cancers studied include, breast (in women past menopause) colon and rectal cancer, endometrial, esophagus, gallbladder, kidney, liver, ovarian, pancreas, stomach, thyroid prostate and multiple myeloma.
Their research indicates “the links between body weight and cancer are complex and are not yet fully understood. For example, while studies have found that excess weight is linked with an increased risk of breast cancer in women after menopause, it does not seem to increase the risk of breast cancer before menopause.”
Another noteworthy finding from the ACS’s research is “the timing of weight gain might also affect cancer risk. Being overweight during childhood and young adulthood might be more of a risk factor than gaining weight later in life for some cancers. For example, some research suggests that women who are overweight as teenagers (but not those who gain weight as adults) may be at higher risk for developing ovarian cancer before menopause.”
To better understand “the relationship between weight loss among people with obesity and cancer risk, some researchers are examining cancer risk in people with obesity who have undergone bariatric surgery (surgery performed on the stomach or intestines to provide maximum and sustained weight loss). Studies have found that bariatric surgery among people with obesity, particularly women, is associated with reduced risks of cancer overall, says The National Cancer Institute.
The connections between obesity and cancer beg the question, does losing weight reduce the risk of cancer? While the ACS’s response reflects the absence of empirical proof that dieting decreases the cancer risk, it nevertheless offers indirect, but viable connections between obesity and cancer.
“Some body changes that occur as a result of weight loss suggest it may, indeed, reduce cancer risk. For example, 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,” says ACS.
The NIH says “for most Americans who do not use tobacco, the most important cancer risk factors that can be changed are body weight, diet, and physical activity. At least 18% of all cancers diagnosed in the US are related to excess body weight, physical inactivity, excess alcohol consumption, and/or poor nutrition, and thus could be prevented.”
The following NIH recommendations offer practical but effective ways to help break the links between cancer and obesity. “Along with avoiding tobacco products, staying at a healthy weight, staying active throughout life, and eating a healthy diet may greatly reduce a person’s lifetime risk of developing or dying from cancer. These same behaviors are also linked with a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes.”
“Although these healthy choices can be made by each of us, they can be helped or slowed by the social, physical, economic, and regulatory environment in which we live. Community efforts are needed to create an environment that makes it easier for us to make healthy choices when it comes to diet and physical activity.”