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Losing weight can cut cancer risk


February 8, 2005 - A hard look in the mirror probably motivates more people to go on a weight-loss diet than any other factor. But if you need more incentive, losing weight can reduce your risk of certain cancers. And if you add exercise to your regimen, you're further increasing your cancer-protective potential.

Excess weight may account for 14 percent of all deaths from cancer in men and 20 percent of those in women, according to a recent study from the American Cancer Society (ACS).

Although the link between overweight and heart disease is well publicized, people may be less aware of the association between overweight and cancer, says Therese Bevers, M.D.

"A major educational point we need to make is that overweight and obesity are serious health risks, as serious as smoking," says Bevers, medical director of the M.D. Anderson Cancer Prevention Center at the University of Texas in Houston.

For the ACS study, close to a million people were evaluated for 16 years. Investigators made adjustments for smoking and other cancer risk factors.

Those who were overweight were more likely to have some form of cancer, including non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and cancer of the cervix, ovary, liver, pancreas, stomach and prostate.

Overweight and obese women also face greater odds of developing acute myelogenous leukemia (AML), according to the University of Minnesota Cancer Center study cited in the December issue of the Environmental Nutrition newsletter.

The Minnesota study looked at 37,000 women age 55 or older over a 14-year span. Overweight women had a 90 percent greater risk for developing the disease and obese women had a 140 percent greater risk.

Researchers haven't pinpointed the mechanism by which excess weight could contribute to cancer and there's no single cause of cancer. But being overweight does have an impact. In women, changing hormone levels that occur with obesity may play a role.

Slimming down and|improving health risks

As you're inspired to lose weight, don't embrace a fad diet, such as one that's high in protein and low in carbohydrates. Scientific evidence suggests certain weight-loss methods are preferable.

Eating more plant-based foods, including dark leafy greens and whole grains, will not only help you lose weight but may also protect you against cancer, says Sally Scroggs, a registered dietitian with the M.D. Anderson Cancer Prevention Center.

"You can reduce your risk of cancer by 30 to 40 percent using a plant-based diet," says Scroggs.

Fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants and dietary fiber that reduce the risk of certain cancers, according to the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

What's more, by substituting vegetables, beans and unrefined grains for high-fat meats and processed snack foods, you're less likely to be hungry as you lose weight, according to Scroggs.

Physical activity, part of any sensible weight-loss plan, also has cancer-prevention potential.

"Exercise may decrease colon cancer risk by 40 percent. And getting moderate to vigorous exercise on five or more days a week may reduce the risk of breast cancer," Scroggs says.

Cancer education used to focus on reducing fat. Now programs recommend the following: Eat a variety of foods with an emphasis on healthy fat; get more exercise and maintain a healthy weight.

If you've been overweight most of your life, you may wonder if you can still benefit from dieting. Your risk factor might not be that of someone who has been slim for life, but you can make an improvement in your health.

"Like smoking, even if you've smoked for 30 years there's a benefit to quitting. It's the same with losing weight," says Bevers.

Bev Bennett is the co-author of "The Dictionary of Healthful Food Terms" (Barron's, 1997).


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