15 February 2008

Fat fuels cancer risk

Being obese boosts the risk of half a dozen types of cancer, and the odds strengthen as one's waistline thickens, according to a major review published by The Lancet.

Being obese boosts the risk of half a dozen types of cancer, and the odds strengthen as one's waistline thickens, according to a major review published by The Lancet.

Doctors at the University of Manchester, north-western England, trawled through 141 studies that monitored the health of 282 000 people who gained weight. Their benchmark of fat was the body mass index (BMI), in which the individual's weight in kilos is divided by the square of the person's height in metres. Individuals with a BMI of 25 - 29.9 are considered overweight, while those with a BMI of 30 or more are obese.

How the study was done
The investigators found that every gain of five points in BMI among men raised the risk of gullet cancer by 52 percent, of thyroid cancer by 33 percent and of colon and kidney cancers by 24 percent. Among women, a BMI increase of five points hiked the risk of cancer of the uterus lining by 59 percent, of the gallbladder by 59 percent, of the gullet by 51 percent and of the kidney by nine percent.

Smaller, but still significant, associations were seen between BMI increase and cancer of the rectum, colon and skin among men, and of the breast, pancreas, thyroid and colon among women. In both sexes, there was an increased risk of leukaemia, non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and multiple myeloma.

Obesity has long been linked to deaths from cardiovascular disease and to diabetes in industrialised countries, a phenomenon that is now extending to cities in developing economies. According to some estimates, deaths from obesity in the United States outstripped those from smoking in 2005.

But only recently has strong evidence emerged of an association between excess body fat and cancer.

Additional studies
A ground-breaking report issued last year by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research found a link with cancers of the throat, colon, rectum, kidney and, among post-menopausal women, the breast.

In a commentary, also published by The Lancet, Swedish nutritionists Susanna Larsson and Alicja Wolk of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm speculated that excess body fat may cause changes in levels of insulin, sex steroids and other hormones. This could have an impact on apoptosis, the mechanism by which a flawed cell commits suicide.

Cancerous cells are able to bypass apoptosis and proliferate unchecked. Localised accumulation of fat cells could also contribute significantly to specific tumours, such as cancers of the liver and throat, suggested Larsson and Wolk. – (Sapa) - February 2008

Read more:
Diet and exercise vs. cancer
Genes blamed for child obesity


Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Ask the Expert

Cancer expert

CANSA’s purpose is to lead the fight against cancer in South Africa. Its mission is to be the preferred non-profit organisation that enables research, educates the public and provides support to all people affected by cancer. Questions are answered by CANSA’s Head of Health Professor Michael Herbst and Head of Advocacy Magdalene Seguin. For more information, visit

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules