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Cancer and Obesity
The Cancer Risk of Being Overweight

Pink breast cancer ribbon.
Pink breast cancer ribbon.

The single greatest risk factor for cancer is smoking. Americans have known that for more than 50 years. However, when asked what the second most significant risk factor is, most people guess wrong. Air pollution, pesticides and meat can all contribute, but the correct answer is obesity.

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) found strong links between 12 cancers and excess body fat, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identifies 13. The more overweight you are, the more your risk for these cancers increases.

The 13 cancers associated with overweight and obesity are:

13 Cancers Associated with Obesity
Meningioma (cancer in the tissue covering the brain and spinal cord), Adenocarcinoma of the Esophagus, Multiple Myeloma (cancer of blood cells), Kidneys, Uterus (endometrial cancer), Ovaries, Thyroid, Breast (postmenopausal women), Liver, Gallbladder, Upper Stomach, Pancreas, Colon and Rectum.

Graphic provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

All those cancers, except colorectal cancer, increased 7 percent between 2005-2014. That doesn't mean cancer is getting worse. In fact, cancers NOT associated with being overweight or obese DECREASED 13 percent between 2005-2014.

Because of better screening, colorectal cancer dropped an incredible 23 percent. But doctors can only do so much. As Americans continue getting fatter, those cancers linked to weight will continue to increase.

Younger people aren't immune. Six of those cancers (colorectal, endometrial, gallbladder, kidney, multiple myeloma, and pancreas) have been increasing in young adults.

When I began personal training in 2000, the obesity rate was 30.5%, according to the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). By 2018 that number had increased to 42.4%. Severe obesity increased from 4.7% to 9.2%.

Those numbers are only for people classified as obese. The number of overweight people has increased from about 56% in 1994 to nearly 70% in 2014. In 2021, with a year of lockdowns and quarantines, that number has gotten even worse.

According to the CDC, the risk factors vary by the type of cancer, but as of 2019, about 40% of all cancers are associated with obesity. Merely moving people from the obese to the overweight category can have a significant impact on reducing cases.

When cancer researchers break down the specific risk factors, many are diet-related—eating too little fiber, fruits or vegetables. Eating too much red meat or processed meats is a problem. Drinking too much alcohol makes things worse. A lack of exercise to burn off the excess calories we're eating is an issue.

On our bodies, the biggest threat comes from too much fat around the waist, called visceral fat.

We like to think that a little treat once in a while won't matter. But you can't indulge at every meal. There are also huge misconceptions about what's healthy. Here's an example.

Burger King has two Whopper sandwiches. One is made with a vegan Impossible Foods patty, and one is made with a beef patty. But there's little difference in the calories. The Impossible Whopper has 628 calories, while the regular whopper has 657 calories. There's only 29 calories difference. Both are very high in calories, and they both get much worse if you eat them with French fries and a regular soda.

There are several things you can do to fight obesity.

In schools you can encourage children to walk or bike to school. Ensure physical education programs are funded and make healthier food options available during mealtimes.

At work, you can make it easier to take stairs, encourage employees to walk or work part-time at standing desks. Increase healthy options in workplace vending machines or break rooms. If employees work from home, use the money you save on renting office space to purchase standing desks and wireless headphones so people can walk around while talking.

At home, plan more physical activities with the family and limit screen time. Experiment with healthier recipes and spend more time cooking instead of relying on takeout or highly processed foods. Exercise at least 150 minutes a week, or about how long it takes to watch two episodes of Game of Thrones.

Every day you wake up with the ability to make healthier choices. What choices will you make today?

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CAUTION: Check with your doctor before
beginning any diet or exercise program.