One thing grows clearer every day: Obesity is THE biggest risk factor for cancer. I’m not talking about routine overweight – I mean out-and-out extreme overweight — obesity as doctors define it. So today I want to address how it may not even be your fault and what you can do to lower your cancer risk.
There’s a lot we don’t understand about obesity. And while it’s true certain behaviors can lead to being way overweight, it’s just as true that some things are out of your control. Genetics play a role, for example. Where you live factors in. Even the food you eat is suspect — and I’m not talking about high-calorie stuff. I’ll explain more below…
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Why obesity puts you on a
high-speed train toward cancer
Everybody knows obesity has been on the rise for decades. Pretty much everybody knows obesity is a major risk factor for heart disease and diabetes.
But not enough people realize just how drastically obesity can super-charge your cancer risk. An obese person is more likely to develop cancer and less likely to respond to treatment. An obese person is also a lot more likely to see cancer return after a first round of treatment seemed to be successful.
So let’s talk about what obesity really is (and isn’t). For starters, it’s not just a matter of being overweight. When you’re overweight, you have more body fat than you should. And let’s face it, a lot of us fall into that category because, for most of us reading this, food is abundant and cheap, and low-activity lifestyles are the norm.
To determine whether you or someone you love is obese, you need to calculate your body mass index (BMI).
If your BMI falls between 18.5 and 24.9, you’re at a good weight. If it’s between 25 and 29.9, you’re overweight. And if it’s over 30… you’re obese and have a significantly increased risk for cancer. You can find out what your BMI is by taking your weight and dividing it by the square of your height (here’s a link to a free BMI calculator provided by the NIH).
When it comes to cancer and obesity, there are several mechanisms that lead to the actual disease. Fat tissue produces excess estrogen, which is associated with breast, endometrial, and a few other cancers. Fat cells also produce hormones that stimulate cell proliferation, so if you get cancer, it’ll spread faster.
Higher insulin levels (common in obese people) lead to tumor growth. And obese people tend to have low-level inflammation, which is also associated with higher cancer risk.
Because of these factors, certain cancers are more likely to strike an obese person, including breast cancer, colon and rectum cancer, and cancers of the kidney, pancreas, thyroid, gallbladder, and esophagus.
And here’s a sobering thought: By 2030, obesity will lead to roughly 500,000 additional cases of cancer in the U.S. Yet, if every adult lowered his or her BMI by just one percent, it would prevent at least 100,000 of those new cancer cases.
Why the obesity epidemic isn’t completely the victims’ fault
I’m sure you know there’s the problem with knowing you or someone you love is obese: What can you actually do about it? Plenty of people I know have tried to take the weight off. And I know it takes megatons of willpower and determination, especially when so many aspects of modern culture work against anyone trying to slim down.
Think about it. We live in a time-crunched culture where money reigns supreme. Anyone trying to fit in a job along with raising kids or caring for someone or volunteering or having any kind of life knows the stark temptation of fast food. After all, it’s cheap, it’s quick, and it’s satisfying. …And unfortunately loaded with saturated fats, sugar and other calories, and – worse yet – chemical food additives.
Then there’s our common lifestyle of sitting for just about everything we do. Most of us sit in cars on our way to our jobs, then we sit at desks for work. We sit in front of televisions during our downtime. We sit in front of computers to check in with friends or read the latest news and updates.
There’s also the more insidious fact that big corporations are out to squeeze as much cash as possible with the least possible effort when it comes to growing and manufacturing food. That’s one of the reasons our grocery stores are stocked with too many GMO and processed foods, foods with a long shelf-life and packed with flavor-enhancing chemicals, some of which are even addictive (remember “nobody can eat just one”? There’s a reason for that.)
The stuff is cheap to create and those companies make a killing off of feeding us substandard food. Scientists don’t even fully know how some of these foods affect the human body over the long term, but one thing I can tell you is that early research indicates nothing but bad news.
But there’s a way to outsmart lurking fat cells…
I realize this all sounds pretty bleak… but there is a way to overcome the obesity risk factor.
First of all, start small. Too many people get overwhelmed when they learn they need to lose a lot of weight. For some, even losing 15 pounds can sound impossible… let alone, 50 pounds. But it’s not even safe to take off a lot of weight very quickly. Dropping one to two pounds per week is the best way to do it, and losing slowly like that makes it a lot easier to keep that weight off for good.
Get the process started by making tiny changes in your life. Here are some easy favorites:
Add one new step per week. Don’t overwhelm yourself, because you don’t want to risk getting discouraged.
If there’s someone in your life who might be obese, start by sharing this list with them, and consider sending them the link to the free BMI calculator (here it is again:
The best recommendation I can make – and I know it’s difficult – is to completely give up sugar, including “secret sugar” that’s in almost everything, from salad dressings to bread. Because sugar is addictive and a mere taste of it tends to send me off on a binge (e.g. eating a whole pint of ice cream instead of a few bites), it’s actually less torment not to eat it at all than to try to ration myself to having “just a little.” “Just a little” always seems to turn from one dessert a week into several.
That’s why I urge people to go cold turkey and avoid it altogether. There always seems to be an excuse to make an exception – a dinner out with friends, a holiday or birthday. Those exceptions make big trouble for your waistline, your blood sugar and – eventually – your cancer cell count.
To trend off sugar, get into the fruit habit. I love fresh fruit. Yes, it contains some sugar, but it also contains a great deal of filling fiber and a host of valuable nutrients.
Lee Euler, Publisher