This might surprise you – obesity is the leading cause of cancer after smoking in the UK. You will have heard the term obesity in the news, at the office, and all over place, but what is “obesity” really? Obesity is when a person has an unhealthy amount of body fat. If you’re thinking, “That sounds like it describes quite a lot of us,” you’d be right, it does. It is now very common to be overweight and obese in the UK and around the world in both adults and children alike. That is why obesity is considered one of the biggest healthcare challenges of this century. In the UK, more people are now overweight or obese than are a healthy weight. To use a medical term, obesity is defined as a body mass index (BMI) score (a measurement that takes in to account height and weight) that is more than 30 and overweight is a score between 25 and 30.
Have a look at the NHS website if you’d like to calculate your own BMI. (https://www.nhs.uk/Tools/Pages/Healthyweightcalculator.aspx)
Of course, not everyone who is overweight or obese will develop cancer. Rather, obesity seems to increase the risk of cancer in some people. Why? Well, the short answer is that no one knows. The effect of excess body fat is not the same for everyone because we are all different. This can be due to differences in our genes, our lifestyles and in the types of food we eat. As a result, the way that being overweight can affect each person can be very different. What we know is that body fat is a collection of cells that stores nutrients from the diet and also releases hormones and other chemicals. In obesity, this ability to store nutrients, or the release of hormones, can go wrong. Over time this can cause problems with the function of our organs which then increases the risk of developing several diseases, including cancer. There are lots of factors involved, so how obesity causes different diseases is incredibly complex. If you have any concerns about your health, you should speak to your GP.
Is it just breast cancer that is associated with obesity? No, research has shown that many types of cancer are more common in people who are overweight or obese and this includes breast cancers in women after menopause. In my laboratory, we are looking for the primary chemicals that our brain makes that control how hungry we feel, how active we are and how much energy we use (see photo link). We are also trying to figure out why excess body fat (see photo link) promotes disease and what we can do to stop this from happening.
So, what can we do to reduce the risk of breast cancer? We can help stack the odds against cancer by avoiding gaining excess weight and by trying to maintain a healthy weight. For most of us, the best way to control weight is by getting portion size down to the right size for what our body needs and avoiding snacking. It is also really important to move around more as this has lots of benefits, not just keeping weight down. A simple way to know whether you’ve got this right is by getting on the bathroom scale. If year on year you aren’t gaining weight, then you’ve got it sussed! If you are gaining weight, then try some adjustments to your lifestyle.
The positive message here is that we have the power to reduce our risk!