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August 3, 2018 | 4 minute read

Body Fatness, Weight Gain, and the Risk of Cancer

During their lifetime, one in three Americans will be diagnosed with cancer. And second only to avoiding tobacco, current evidence says that maintaining a healthy body weight throughout life may be the most powerful thing you can do to reduce cancer risk. Research links excess body fat with greater risk of at least 12 different cancers. That includes some of the most common cancers, such as postmenopausal breast cancer and colorectal cancer, as well as advanced prostate cancer.

Figure 5: Nutrition, physical activity, and the hallmarks of cancer infographicNot Just Storage – It’s Active Tissue

If you think of those growing inches around your middle only as a storage depot that gets in the way when you bend over to tie your shoes, it may be hard to see what the fuss is about. Many people don’t realize that body fat is an active endocrine (hormone-producing) tissue.

  • In post-menopausal women, body fat is the major source of estrogen production. Women with excess body fat tend to have higher levels of this hormone available to promote growth of estrogen-sensitive cancers.
  • Body fat tissue is more than just stored fat. It produces hormones, such as leptin, that promote cancer development. Moreover, it’s infiltrated with immune cells, and as fat tissue expands, they boost production of a variety of signaling proteins called cytokines that promote chronic, low-grade inflammation that increases cancer risk.
  • Excess body fat often leads to insulin resistance, which causes the body to produce elevated amounts of insulin and growth factors that lead to development of cancer.

Research shows that not all body fat is the same. Fat in the hips and buttocks adds extra weight that puts a burden on knees, for example, but it’s not as metabolically active as “visceral fat” around abdominal organs and “ectopic fat” which is deposited in liver or muscle. This visceral and ectopic body fat is particularly associated with insulin resistance and inflammation.

Watch for Gain in Weight or Waist

  • Regardless of your current weight, weight gain may be an even better indicator of excess body fat than weight itself.
  • Stopping the weight gain trend may be a great starting point if you don’t feel ready to lose weight now. Although it might seem that simply stopping a weight gain wouldn’t matter, research shows that you can reduce your risk of cancer by stopping any further weight gain.
  • Knowing your waist size does add a helpful piece of the puzzle for recognizing excess body fat according to research. Although people with the same waist size can have differing amounts of subcutaneous fat (the “pinch an inch” fat that seems to pose less health threat) versus the visceral fat that poses special health risks, more often it is a marker for the more dangerous fat.
  • Watch for waist gain, since it’s been identified as a marker of weight gain particularly linked to health risks. If your weight stays stable but your waist increases, that suggests that you may be losing lean weight and gaining fat, or shifting from more benign fat stored elsewhere in your body to more abdominal fat. This is a typical change related to midlife changes in hormones, but the bigger the change, the more it is associated with risk of cancer and other chronic diseases.

Think Like a Detective, Not a Judge

Paying attention to weight and waist gain does not have to mean adopting body-shaming labels and judgmental attitudes that have become all too common.

A variety of factors widen the gap between how many calories you consume and how active you are that maintains current weight. Metabolic rate slows down as we get older. Changes in work life, personal lifestyle, and social or cultural changes all can contribute to more sitting, less moving, more passive food and drink consumption, and bigger portions, for example.

To stop unhealthy gain in weight and waist, the crucial question is what’s likely behind it. Remove the focus on “good” or “bad” and consider what options you have to halt the gain.

    • Look for choices in what you eat and drink that allow you to shave portions, especially of foods that are concentrated in calories but not nutrients.
    • If you’ve given up some sports or activities, search out new options for keeping active. Bouts of 10 or 15 minutes scattered throughout the day provide many of the same benefits as longer-lasting activity.
    • Consider how much time you spend sitting, and if it’s been increasing, replace some of it with even light activity.
    • Switch socializing opportunities to focus less on eating and drinking, and more on conversation. If they can provide opportunities for movement, that’s even better.

With a positive attitude, watching for weight or waist gain is another opportunity, just like monitoring blood pressure and blood sugar, to make “course adjustments” on life’s path as part of taking good care of yourself.

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