While the old adage ‘we are what we eat’ might be an oversimplification, the truth is we are affected by how we eat.
A 2010 survey by the Center for Disease Control found that nearly 70 percent of the United States adult population could be considered overweight – having a Body Mass Index between 25 and 30 percent – and more than 35 percent were considered obese – defined as having a body mass index of 30 percent or higher. In Georgia, approximately 65 percent of the population is considered overweight and nearly 30 percent is considered obese.
While much has been made, and rightfully so, about the connection between obesity and health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease, there has been less talk of the connection between obesity and cancer.
A recent survey by the National Cancer Institute determined that four percent of cancers in men and seven percent of cancers in women were a direct result of obesity. While that might not sound like a lot, that represents almost 85,000 cases a year for which there were no other contributing factors. No smoking. No excessive exposure to carcinogens. No genetic proclivity.
And those numbers are on the rise. Although Americans continue to make strides toward breaking their collective smoking habit, we are still eating unhealthy. In the past 20 years, the number of overweight or obese adults has risen by more than ten percent. By 2030, the NCI expects that 500,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed with obesity as their primary cause.
At the Georgia Regents University Cancer Center, we see this as a real cause for concern.
While not every obese person will develop cancer, it is important to remember that obesity is a controllable condition with profound consequences. Obesity has been shown to be a significant risk factor for esophageal, pancreatic, colon, kidney, thyroid, gallbladder, breast and uterine cancer.
The secret to fighting obesity is, of course, no secret at all. The best way to control our weight, and by extension our general health, is diet and exercise. Focus on a balanced diet that includes fresh fruit, vegetables and fiber and limiting high-calorie food and drinks. Exercise daily. If this sounds daunting, start simply. Walk after dinner. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Everything helps. Nothing hurts.
It’s important to remember that the choices we make as adults often affect more than just ourselves. Children learn from the examples they see around them. Their understanding of how the world should work and what behaviors are and are not acceptable is observational. Yes, weight control and exercise is important for our own health, but it’s also important because it instills in children those habits that will allow them to live longer, and healthier, lives.
A lot of time and effort has been put into finding ways to combat cancer in all its forms. This might come in the form of chemotherapy, radiation or other treatments. But the truth is the very best way to combat cancer is to take those steps that reduce the risk of it ever occurring.
Prevention is indeed the very best medicine of all.
Dr. Samir N. Khleif has more than 22 years’ experience in cancer research and treatment, including in the Cancer Vaccine Section at the National Cancer Institute. The GRU Cancer Center is working toward becoming a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center.