You're carrying some extra weight around and it's obvious that it can take a toll on your self-esteem, make you feel slow and sluggish, and raise your risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease...
But now, researchers have suggested that there's a strong link between extra weight and cancer, too - a number of different types of cancer, in fact! While it's true that most cases of cancer occur due to genetic traits or purely out of chance, experts confirm that obesity can also be a big contributing factor.
“We know that a good third of cancers are associated with our lifestyle behaviours, such as what we eat, how much we exercise, and collectively, our weight,” says Melinda Irwin, PhD, director of Cancer Prevention and Control at Yale University in Connecticut in the USA. “And obesity is now the leading modifiable risk factor, even ahead of tobacco use, that's associated with cancer risk and mortality,” adds Irwin.
Keep reading to learn how obesity encourages cancer growth, the different cancers linked to obesity and how you can protect yourself.
High levels of long-term inflammation fuel the growth of cancer cells – and obesity is basically a chronic inflammatory state
By now, you probably know that high levels of long-term inflammation has been proven to fuel the growth of cancer
cells. In simple terms, inflammation is your body’s natural response to injury, illness or other disturbances. “And we know that obesity
is basically a chronic inflammatory state,” says Irwin.
itself isn’t the only thing that triggers inflammation though. Eating disorders that cause the excessive weight gain in the first place are usually also to blame – think diets high in sugar and fat
. Plus, carrying too much extra weight around your belly, regardless of your body mass index, leads to inflammation in your body as well.
Some types of cancer, such as hormonal cancers, are also associated with sex hormones such as oestrogen. A woman’s body produces oestrogen in their fat
cells, especially after menopause. “The higher levels of body fat you have, the higher levels of oestrogen,” explain Irwin.
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Find out how to really protect your prostate how to protect your prostate and avoid becoming another medical statistic.
And then there’s the way in which obesity
contributes to insulin resistance – a blood sugar
disorder that occurs when your body loses its sensitivity to the insulin hormone and can’t respond normally anymore. This disorder can cause excess levels of insulin as well as insulin-related growth hormones in your body, which has been tied to cell proliferation and a number of types of cancer.
Obesity is linked to several types of cancer, including endometrial, colorectal and oesophageal cancer
Mounting studies have shown that carrying extra weight or being obese is clearly associated with a heightened risk of several cancers, including endometrial (uterine), colorectal, esophageal, kidney, pancreatic as well as, in post-menopausal women, breast cancer
“The strongest is probably uterine cancer,” says Irwin. “There’s probably a six-fold higher risk of dying of uterine cancer for those with a high BMI versus those with a low BMI.”
And that’s not all – some studies have also linked obesity to an increased risk of liver cancer
. Irwin explains that obesity is one of the main risk factors for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, which can progress to liver cirrhosis and, in severe cases, liver cancer
While your likelihood of developing fatty liver disease are influenced by several genes, a study recently published in the journal Nature Genetics uncovered that people with high-risk gene variants who were obese were much more likely to get the disease compared to those with high-risk gene variants who were normal weight.
On the flip side, studies have found less of a direct link between obesity and other cancers, including ovarian, cervical, prostate, gallbladder as well as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. But this doesn’t been that obesity plays no risk whatsoever in these diseases.
How to protect yourself from getting cancer if you’re overweight or obese
If you’re overweight
or obese, slimming down and maintaining a healthy weight can cut your risk of getting cancer as well as dying from the disease if you do get it. “It’s really the weight loss
that seems to be so important, rather than following a specific diet or making sure you’re eating a specific food,” says Irwin.
Making healthy food choices and keeping track of your calorie intake is a sure-fire way to shave excess kilos. However, Irwin stresses how exercise is equally important – especially if you’re a middle-age or older adult.
“As we age, we lose bone mass and muscle mass, which affects metabolic rate,” Irwin explains. Exercise won’t only help you lose weight, but also protect your bones and muscles as well as fight inflammation – therefore, it’s more beneficial for your health than dieting alone.
“What I would tell the general public, or anyone who has been diagnosed with cancer, is that preventing weight gain as we age or trying to promote weight loss
if you're overweight is one of the most important things you can do,” says Irwin. “It's going to significantly change your risk for cancer, and, importantly, for overall mortality,” she concludes.