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Obesity Is Now a Bigger Risk Factor for Cancer Than Cigarettes

Obesity Is Now a Bigger Risk Factor for Cancer Than Cigarettes

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Obesity has been linked to more than 13 types of cancer—but new research shows that eating a healthy diet might help reduce your risk.

You may think someone’s risk of developing cancer has to do with their genetics and family history. And that’s partly true. But new research shows that one out of every three cancer cases may actually be linked to obesity.

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One of the strongest pieces of evidence within the report comes from a 2015 study published by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. The report linked excess body fat to a higher risk of developing more than 13 types of cancer—including postmenopausal breast cancer and ovarian, liver, colon, pancreatic, gastric, and endometrial cancers. The study also confirmed that obesity has "surpassed tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of cancer" in the United States.

Stephen D. Hursting, PhD, MPH, was the study's lead author, and a professor within the Department of Nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Alongside a team of researchers, Hursting looked at how excess body fat influences the possibility of developing cancer in the body.

According to the study, obesity “exacerbates tumor development” and can lead to various types of cancer. The study suggests that obese individuals also have a harder time fighting and treating cancer because their body is already in poor health.

The report examined how changing your diet—through intermittent fasting or eating a low-calorie or low-fat diet—could potentially reverse the effects of "obesity-associated alterations." Though researchers found clear connections between an individual’s body weight and their risk of developing cancer, they agree that more research is needed to confirm if reversing obesity could reduce someone’s cancer risk outright.

Over 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children in the U.S. are obese, and over 400,000 cancer diagnoses each year are related to obesity. According to the study, “Obesity is fast becoming the leading preventable cause of cancer.”

Though researchers haven't unlocked the key to exactly how obesity increases your risk of developing cancer, this research shows that lifestyle choices could play a substantial role in preventing the disease.

The bottom line: If you have a family history of cancer, or present other risk factors, one thing you can do to drastically reduce your risk is to examine your diet and work on getting healthy.

Obesity Taken as Seriously as Cancer, Worse than Heart Disease

Americans now take obesity as seriously as cancer, and say it’s an even bigger health threat than heart disease, the nation’s leading killer.

Men were more likely to underestimate their weight than women (66 percent vs 50 percent).

Understanding of risks of obesity is improving, but major misperceptions about causes and treatments persist. Most do not go beyond traditional diets or involve doctors in their largely unsuccessful personal struggles against the disease, according to a new survey by the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery (ASMBS) and the independent research organization, NORC at the University of Chicago.

The findings were released here during ObesityWeek 2016, the largest international event focused on the basic science, clinical application and prevention and treatment of obesity.

The ASMBS/NORC Obesity Poll finds that 81 percent of Americans consider obesity to be the most serious health problem facing the nation, tying cancer as the top issue, ahead of diabetes (72 percent), heart disease (72 percent), mental illness (65 percent), and HIV/AIDS (46 percent).

In 2011- 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports the prevalence of obesity was more than 36 percent in adults, a number that has grown significantly in the last 10 years.

Nearly everyone (94 percent) agrees that obesity itself increases the risk for an early death, even if no other health problems are present, according to the new poll. Yet, despite the seriousness with which they take the threat, the vast majority of Americans incorrectly perceive diet and exercise alone to be the most effective long-term weight loss method, and 1 in 3 of those struggling with obesity, report that they have never spoken with a doctor or health professional about their weight. Only 12 percent of those with severe obesity, for whom weight-loss surgery may be an option, say a doctor has ever suggested they consider surgery.

“This survey reveals that Americans understand the risks of obesity better than ever, but hold major misperceptions about the causes of the disease, the effectiveness of the different treatments and the importance of involving the medical community in their care,” said Raul J. Rosenthal, MD, President, ASMBS and Chairman, Department of General Surgery, Cleveland Clinic Florida. “I think obesity may be the only life-threatening disease where more than a third of the patients do not consult a doctor for treatment, and where the vast majority do not explore other treatment options that may yield better long-term success rates.”

The ASMBS/NORC Obesity Poll finds about 60 percent of Americans are currently trying to lose weight, although most everyone with obesity has tried before (94 percent). More than half of those with obesity have tried at least five previous times, and 1 in 5 have made more than 20 attempts to lose weight over their lifetimes. Only 22 percent of obese Americans rate their health positively, and half report being diagnosed with two or more chronic conditions.

Most Americans consider diet and exercise on one’s own to be the most effective method (78 percent) for long-term weight loss, saying it’s even more effective than weight-loss surgery (60 percent) and prescription obesity drugs (25 percent).

“Diet and exercise alone is simply not the most effective long-term treatment. It’s an important component, but on its own, it’s probably the least effective option for most people with obesity,” said John M. Morton, MD, MPH, chief of bariatric and minimally invasive surgery at Stanford University School of Medicine and ASMBS immediate past president. “We have to get people, and even the medical community, to go beyond ‘eat less and exercise more.’ That’s too simple an answer for a complex disease like obesity. We have an expanding spectrum of treatments and many are underutilized because they are misperceived or poorly understood.”

When it comes to safety, 88 percent of Americans say losing weight through diet and exercise, especially with the help of a doctor, is the safest way to go, while prescription medications (15 percent) and dietary supplements (16 percent) are perceived to be the least safe.

As for weight-loss surgery, Americans are divided, with about one-third of each who believe it to be safe (31 percent), unsafe (37 percent), or neither safe nor unsafe (31 percent). Despite the mixed feelings, a majority of Americans (68 percent) think that living with obesity is still riskier than having weight-loss surgery.

Using self-reported height and weight to calculate body mass index, the ASMBS/NORC Obesity Poll assessed a person’s perceptions of their own weight status, and 57 percent of obese respondents underestimated where they were. Almost half (47 percent) said they were overweight or about the right weight (10 percent). Men were more likely to underestimate their weight than women (66 percent vs 50 percent).

“Obesity in America is a constant struggle for many adults, one filled with worry, denial, conflicted thinking and significant health concerns,” said Trevor Tompson, Vice President at NORC at the University of Chicago. “The survey shows there’s a significant need for education so that Americans can better match the health risks and impact of obesity on their lives with the actions they take and the treatments they choose.”

Part of the issue may be that the public thinks about obesity differently than the medical community. While health professionals have generally reached consensus that obesity is a disease (the American Medical Association and other medical groups declared it so in 2013), little more than one-third (38 percent) of Americans agree, with most considering it simply a risk factor for other diseases. Additionally, health experts say obesity is caused by a combination of genetic, environmental, and social factors, yet many Americans (48 percent) believe it is caused primarily by a person’s lifestyle choices and that the biggest barrier to weight loss is a lack of willpower (75 percent).

For many Americans, concerns about their weight can dominate their life. The ASMBS/NORC Obesity Poll found that 1-in-3 of all Americans worry about gaining weight all or a good deal of the time, but that those with obesity are more than twice as likely to report being chronically worried (54 percent) than non-obese individuals (20 percent). Of those who worry about their weight, the majority are extremely or very concerned about the health consequences. In fact, it appears nearly all Americans (98 percent) at this point know about the increased risk that obesity poses for developing diabetes and most know about the increased risk for developing certain types of cancer (82 percent).

The nationally representative survey of 1,509 adults was funded by ASMBS and used AmeriSpeak, the probability-based panel of NORC at the University of Chicago. It included oversamples of African Americans and Hispanics and was conducted between August 11 and September 21, 2016. The unique capabilities of AmeriSpeak enabled the survey to be done online as well as with landlines and cell phones with high rates of participation. The margin of sampling error is +/- 3.5 percentage points.

Two reports are associated with the survey: “Obesity Rises to Top Health Concern for Americans, but Misperceptions Persist,” and, “New Insights into Americans’ Perceptions and Misperceptions of Obesity Treatments, and the Struggles Many Face.”

People with obesity and severe obesity have higher rates of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, arthritis, sleep apnea, high blood pressure and dozens of other diseases and conditions. Studies have shown individuals with a BMI greater than 30 have a 50 to 100 percent greater risk of premature death compared to healthy weight individuals.

Source: NORC at the University of Chicago
Photo Credit: TheTaiChiClub
Funder: American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery
Meeting: ObesityWeek 2016

Obesity and cancer

People with obesity are at higher risk than people of healthy weight to develop many serious diseases and health conditions, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Being overweight is clearly linked with cancers of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas. There is also evidence that excess weight may contribute to cancers of the gallbladder, liver, cervix, and ovary, as well as non-Hodgkin lymphoma, multiple myeloma, and aggressive forms of prostate cancer. Excess body weight is thought to be responsible for about 8% of all cancers in the United States, as well as about 7% of all cancer deaths.

If you are overweight, consider making some lifestyle changes. Studies show that even a small weight loss – 10% of your current weight – lowers the risk of several diseases.

The American Cancer Society recommends that people try to get to and stay at a healthy weight throughout life by eating a healthy diet and getting enough physical activity. A healthy diet includes lots of vegetables and fruits, whole grains, beans, and lower calorie beverages while limiting high-calorie foods, between-meal snacks, and added sugars.

The American Cancer Society also recommends that adults get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week (or a combination of these), preferably spread throughout the week. Children and teens should get at least 1 hour of moderate or vigorous intensity activity each day, with vigorous activity on at least 3 days each week. Moderate activity is about the level of a brisk walk, while vigorous activity increases your breathing and heart rate, and makes you sweat.

It's also important to limit the amount of time during the day you spend sitting or lying down. Long hours of sedentary behavior have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer, and shorter life.


Research has found that the more alcohol someone drinks&mdashespecially regular use over time&mdashthe higher the risk of cancer. For example, people who have three-and-a-half drinks or more a day are two to three times more likely to develop head and neck cancer than those who don&rsquot drink. Alcohol consumption also has been linked to liver, esophageal, colorectal and breast cancers.

Alcohol increases cancer risk by damaging cell DNA and proteins, as well as the body&rsquos ability to break down nutrients, and by increasing estrogen levels. People who use both alcohol and tobacco have much higher risks of developing head and neck cancer than those who use alcohol or tobacco alone.

French Fries Are The New Cigarettes: Obesity Poses Greater Health Risk Than Smoking

As smoking continues to decline among the US population, the rate of obesity is growing and has now become an equal, if not greater, contributor to the burden of disease and shortening of healthy life compared to smoking, according to Researchers from Columbia and The City College of New York. They say that the Quality-Adjusted Life Years (QALYs) lost due to obesity is now equal to, if not greater than, those lost due to smoking, both modifiable risk factors. The results appear in February 2010 issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

QALYs use preference-based measurements of Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQOL) which allow a person to state a relative preference for a given health outcome. Since one person may value a particular outcome differently than another person, these measures capture how each respondent views his or her own quality of life.

The 1993-2008 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS), the largest ongoing state-based health survey of US adults, has conducted interviews of more than 3,500,000 individuals annual interviews started with 102,263 in 1993 and culminated with 406,749 in 2008. This survey includes a set of questions that measures HRQOL, asking about recent poor health days and tracking overall physical and mental health of the population. The authors analyzed these data and converted the measures to QALYs lost due to smoking and obesity .

What Can Be Done?

The dangers of both smoking and heavy drinking have been on the national health agenda for years. A variety of measures, such as increased education, access control (including smoking bans in many buildings nationwide), taxation, better enforcement of laws relating to minors, curbs on advertising, and increased clinical attention, have resulted in decreased rates for both smoking and drinking.

RAND's findings suggest that weight reduction should be an urgent public health priority. The prevalence of obesity, and its strong association with chronic conditions, indicate that weight reduction would mitigate the effects of obesity on the occurrence of specific diseases and would significantly improve quality of life.

Pandemic shows risk of obesity, and challenge of weight loss

Christian Hainds prepares for a workout session at his home in Hammond, Ind., Monday, June 7, 2021. Health officials have warned since early on in the pandemic that obesity and related conditions such as diabetes were risk factors for severe COVID-19. It wasn't until he was diagnosed as diabetic around the start of the pandemic that he felt the urgency to make changes. Hainds lost about 50 pounds during the pandemic, and at 180 pounds and 5 feet, 11 inches tall is no longer considered obese. (AP Photo/Shafkat Anowar)

NEW YORK – Jennifer Bergin was already obese and pre-diabetic before the pandemic, and learning she also had high blood pressure made her worry about how sick she might get with COVID-19. She began walking three hours a day, eventually losing 60 pounds.

“I just knew I was a prime candidate for getting it and not recovering,” said Bergin, a 50-year-old resident of Charlotte, North Carolina. Now 170 pounds and 5 feet, 4 inches tall, she is no longer considered obese, but would like to continue improving her health.

Since the early days of the pandemic, health officials have warned that obesity and related conditions such as diabetes were risk factors for severe COVID-19. It was another reminder of the many underlying health issues often signaled by obesity — as well as of how stubbornly difficult sustained weight loss can be. Even faced with such risks, it's not clear how common Bergin's dramatic weight loss may be.

Across the country, countless people of all body sizes have either gained or lost weight during the pandemic. For some like Bergin, no longer commuting to an office meant more time for walking, eating out less and greater control over what she ate.

But for others, being stuck at home meant moving less and eating more because of stress, anxiety, depression — or just proximity to the kitchen.

The spectrum of weight changes underscores the complexities of obesity, including how much of a role a person’s circumstances can play in their health, said Karen H. Yeary, an obesity researcher at the Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center in Buffalo, N.Y. That’s contrary to the notion that losing weight is just a matter of willpower, she said.

“It takes a lot of effort and energy to eat healthy and then to lose weight,” Yeary said.

Another reason tackling obesity is so difficult: Weight gain often happens slowly over years, making it easier to dismiss as a health issue. In the U.S., an estimated one in four adults are considered obese, and another one in three are overweight.

It's often not until a major health scare, like a heart attack or a notable deterioration in lifestyle, that people are motivated to lose weight, said Eric Plaisance, an obesity researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

And though the pandemic illuminated the risks of obesity, he said people were already used to hearing about how unhealthy it is to be overweight.

“It usually takes a much greater, life-changing event at a personal level,” he said of what often triggers successful weight loss for people.

That was the case for Mickey Beatima, a 29-year-old Seattle resident who started trying to lose weight a couple months before the pandemic, when his diabetes led to eye problems.

“That really hit me,” said Beatima, who is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and has gone from about 300 pounds to 170 pounds.

The pandemic accelerated his efforts by making weight loss easier. He was no longer getting takeout, going out with friends or gathering with his family for their customary feasts.

He also found solace in dancing to YouTube videos, and was motivated by the knowledge that getting healthier would reduce his risk for severe COVID-19.

“If I were to get it and I was still 300, I think it would be way more of a battle than if I got it today,” Beatima said.

Christian Hainds, a 42-year-old resident of Hammond, Indiana, also lost about 50 pounds during the pandemic, and at 180 pounds and 5 feet, 11 inches tall is no longer considered obese.

His weight had crept up over the years, peaking at around 230 pounds. But it wasn't until he was diagnosed as diabetic around the start of the pandemic that he felt the urgency to make changes — especially since data was emerging that it was one of the conditions that was more likely to lead to severe coronavirus disease.

“All of those long-term scary things that can happen because of obesity no longer became long-term concerns,” Hainds said.

For many others, the spotlight the pandemic put on risks of obesity has faded as vaccines and treatments have dampened the threat of the virus, said obesity researcher Yeary. That might lessen the sense of urgency that was helping to motivate some people. The circumstances of the pandemic that made weight loss easier for some — more time for long walks, eating out less — are also going away.

Beatima, for example, is spending more time with his family again and has put some weight back on. But he's not worried about it derailing his overall fitness goals, because, he said, the pandemic gave him perspective on how his weight was tied to what he valued, such as being healthy enough to spend time with his nieces and nephews for many years to come.

“That new ground is understanding the value of my physical health, my social health and my mental health," he said.

The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Spending Too Much Time Sitting


"Long stints of time on the couch, in the chair at work, or sitting in your car can increase the risks of some types of cancer," says Cara Pensabene, MD, of EHE Health. "In one study , people who spent more than two hours sitting and watching TV had a 70 percent increased risk of developing colorectal cancer."

The Rx: Experts, including the American Heart Association, recommend that adults get at least 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity (such as running or swimming) or 120 minutes of moderate physical activity (such as brisk walking) each week. If you work a desk job, find ways to be more active during the day, if just standing and walking around more.

The one thing causing more Brummies to have cancer than smoking

Obesity is a bigger risk factor for some cancers than cigarettes - and people Birmingham are almost twice as likely to be overweight than smoke.

Cancer Research UK has launched a campaign to increase awareness of the link between obesity and cancer - with excess weight causing more cases of some cancers than smoking.

Its analysis shows people in the UK are twice as likely to be obese than smokers.

Applying similar analysis to local populations shows that in Birmingham, there are approximately 219,000 adults who are obese (with a BMI of 30 or more).

The city has around 118,000 current smokers.

Approximately, 39,000 people in the city are both obese and smokers.

The analysis by Cancer Research UK showed there are around 13.4m non-smoking adults who are obese, 6.3m adult smokers who are not obese, and 1.5m adults who smoke and are obese.

Cancer Research UK’s chief executive Michelle Mitchell said: "As smoking rates fall and obesity rates rise, we can clearly see the impact on a national health crisis when the Government puts policies in place - and when it puts its head in the sand.

"Our children could be a smoke-free generation, but we’ve hit a devastating record high for childhood obesity, and now we need urgent Government intervention to end the epidemic.

“They still have a chance to save lives.”

A study in 2015 found excess weight causes around 1,900 more cases of bowel cancer than smoking in the UK each year.

The same pattern was true for cancer in the kidneys (1,400 more cases caused by excess weight than by smoking each year in the UK), ovaries (460) and liver (180).

Overall, nearly four in ten (37.7%) cancer cases were due to known risk factors - with 15.1% because of smoking, followed by 6.3% attributable to people being overweight or obese.

Cancer Research UK has launched a nationwide campaign this week to increase awareness of the link between obesity and cancer.

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Professor Linda Bauld, Cancer Research UK’s prevention expert, said: "There isn’t a silver bullet to reduce obesity, but the huge fall in smoking over the years - partly thanks to advertising and environmental bans - shows that Government-led change works.

“It was needed to tackle sky-high smoking rates, and now the same is true for obesity.

"The world we live in doesn’t make it easy to be healthy and we need Government action to fix that, but people can also make changes themselves small things like swapping junk food for healthier options and keeping active can all add up to help reduce cancer risk."

Responding to the figures, BMA board of science chair, Prof. Dame Parveen Kumar, said: “The severity of this problem must not be underestimated.

“As well as the pressing need to raise public awareness of the worrying link between obesity and multiple types of cancer, we need to see a reversal of the cuts to public health funding so we can prevent children and adults reaching this critical stage.

“Failure to do so will continue to cost lives.”

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Cancer Research UK wants the Government to act on its ambition to halve childhood obesity rates by 2030 and introduce a 9pm watershed for junk food adverts on TV and online, alongside other measures such as restricting promotional offers on unhealthy food and drinks.

Simon Stevens, Chief Executive of NHS England said: “Although cancer survival is at a record high, this significant progress is in danger of being undone by the fast-growing epidemic of obesity, given excess weight is linked to 13 types of cancer.

“This study is further proof that obesity is the new smoking, and the NHS can’t win the ‘battle against the bulge’ on its own families, food businesses and government all need to play their part if we’re to avoid copying America’s damaging and costly example.”

WHO response

Adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2004 and recognized again in a 2011 political declaration on noncommunicable disease (NCDs), the "WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health" describes the actions needed to support healthy diets and regular physical activity. The Strategy calls upon all stakeholders to take action at global, regional and local levels to improve diets and physical activity patterns at the population level.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes NCDs as a major challenge for sustainable development. As part of the Agenda, Heads of State and Government committed to develop ambitious national responses, by 2030, to reduce by one-third premature mortality from NCDs through prevention and treatment (SDG target 3.4).

The " Global action plan on physical activity 2018&ndash2030: more active people for a healthier world" provides effective and feasible policy actions to increase physical activity globally. WHO published ACTIVE a technical package to assist countries in planning and delivery of their responses. New WHO guidelines on physical activity, sedentary behavior and sleep in children under five years of age were launched in 2019.

The World Health Assembly welcomed the report of the Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity (2016) and its 6 recommendations to address the obesogenic environment and critical periods in the life course to tackle childhood obesity. The implementation plan to guide countries in taking action to implement the recommendations of the Commission was welcomed by the World Health Assembly in 2017.


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