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Obesity and the cancer connection

March 25, 2015

When it comes to preventing cancer, oncologists have long known about the benefits of following a healthy lifestyle, including proper diet and exercise.

Watching your diet

Obesity takes a huge toll on health, and a new British study by Cancer Research UK finds that obese women have a 40 percent higher risk for cancer than other women.

According to the study, 274 in every 1,000 obese British women will develop a weight-associated cancer in their lifetime, compared with 194 in 1,000 healthy weight women.

“Women have more cancers that are long known to have a tie-in with obesity, such as uterine and breast cancer. This is likely due to enhanced conversion of estrogen to higher potency hormone by fat cells, as well as increased insulin, which induces ovarian changes. Some cancers also have a tie-in to obesity through other hormones such as insulin-like growth factor and others,” said Dr. Wilson Mertens, vice president and medical director of Cancer Services at Baystate Medical Center.

Also, a new study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found vegetarians had a 22 percent lower risk for all colorectal cancers, 19 percent lower risk for colon cancer, and a 29 percent lower risk for rectal cancer compared to non-vegetarians. Those who ate fish at least once a month and other meats less than once a month enjoyed the greatest cancer protection – a 42 percent reduction – compared to non-vegetarians.

In general, taking both men and women into account, the American Cancer Society says an estimated 1 out of 3 cancer deaths in the United States is linked to excess body weight, poor nutrition, and/or physical inactivity.

For those overweight or obese, there is a demonstrated link of increased risk of developing the following cancers: breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium (lining of uterus), esophagus, kidney, and pancreas. Being overweight or obese also increases the risk of other cancers, including gallbladder, liver, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, cervix, ovary and aggressive forms of prostate cancer.

In addition, drinking alcohol is linked to an increased risk of mouth, esophagus, pharynx, liver and breast cancers. While it has long been said that red wine can help your heart health, men should still not have more than two drinks a day and women no more than one a day.

“Ask any Baystate Medical Center dietitian and he or she will tell you to eat a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, nuts, beans and whole grains combined, of course, with a healthy dose of exercise. Exercise is very important, particularly if you have been diagnosed with colon or breast cancer. We’re talking about at least 30 minutes of moderately vigorous exercise most days of the week,” said Dr. Mertens

“As for red meat, studies have shown that it and processed meats like ham or hot dogs can increase your risk of cancer,” he added.


The American Institute for Cancer Research’s recommendations for cancer prevention include:

  1. Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight.
  2. Be physically active for at least 30 minutes every day.
  3. Avoid sugary drinks. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods.
  4. Eat more of a variety of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes such as beans.
  5. Limit consumption of red meats (such as beef, pork and lamb) and avoid processed meats.
  6. Limit consumption of salty foods and foods processed with salt (sodium).
  7. Don't use supplements to protect against cancer.
  8. It is best for mothers to breastfeed exclusively for up to 6 months and then add other liquids and foods.