Understanding the Relationship Between Diet, Weight & Cancer Risk
- Ree Drummond, better known to her fans as “The Pioneer Woman,” is opening up about her weight loss journey. While she does not have a history of cancer, it is known that diet and weight can contribute to a person’s risk of developing cancer.
- Obesity increases an individual’s risk of developing a range of dangerous health conditions, including several types of cancer.
- Overcooked red meat, processed foods like bacon, as well as fatty meats have all been associated with an increased cancer risk. However, removing these suspected triggers does not always stop cancer from developing, and indulging in them does not necessarily mean a person will get cancer.
While the 53-year-old television personality, author and blogger does not have a history of cancer, it is known that diet and exercise, and in turn weight loss, can contribute to a person’s risk of developing cancer.Read More
“So last January,” she added, “at my highest weight ever and with the wedding of my daughter looming in May, I just knew I had to start. One year later, I’ve lost 55 pounds.”
Losing weight can be difficult, and Drummond knows that. Here are 10 things she learned while losing weight herself:
- The initial, more intense, stage does not have to last forever
- Building muscle is the gift that keeps on giving
- My body is now accustomed to eating smaller portions
- Alcohol, in moderation, is fine
- Moving every day, even if I do not exercise every day, is very important
- It is important for me to weigh myself daily
- There is nothing on my list of banned foods
- I try to minimize wasted calories
- Steadily doing everything is so much more effective than going all-in on just one thing
- Losing weight and becoming healthy is a lifestyle change, but it has not changed my life
“Today I feel stronger, more in balance (both physically and mentally), and I have more spring (in) my step. I am wearing clothes I wasn’t comfortable wearing a year ago, I feel better about the way I look, and I’m smiling more (yes, even more than I smiled before, which was a lot — haha),” Drummond wrote, “and that is a nice feeling at age 53.”
“After the experience of the past year, I feel better,” she continued, “I have more energy. I’m more motivated to take on projects and put things on the ol’ calendar. Feeling good bleeds over into all aspects of my life. And that has changed my outlook.”
Weight & Cancer Risk
Obesity increases an individual’s risk of developing a range of dangerous health conditions, including several types of cancer. In addition to increasing the likelihood of developing certain cancers, obesity is associated with worse treatment outcomes.
In a previous interview with SurvivorNet, Dr. Stephen Freedland of Cedars Sinai Medical Center said, “Some of the best data we have is that obesity increases the risk of not just getting prostate cancer, but actually dying from prostate cancer. Obese men are 35 percent more likely to die from prostate cancer.”
While obesity or a person’s high weight will not always cause them to develop cancer, other conditions associated obesity, like diabetes and heart disease, can lead to complications from cancer treatment if a person already has cancer. In addition, these conditions can sometimes prevent patients from receiving the recommended first-line therapies, as well as increase a patient’s risk of undergoing surgery.
Dr. Andrea Tufano-Sugarman of NYU Langone Health explained to SurvivorNet the benefits of losing weight.
“While all cancers cannot be prevented,” she said, “losing weight is a great way to reduce one’s risk.”
Dr. Tufano-Sugarman said that this is especially true for women; they lower their risk of developing breast cancer and endometrial cancer when they lose weight and keep it off — like in Ree Drummond’s case. (As previously mentioned, she has lost more than 50 pounds!)
Even without losing weight, adopting a more nutritious diet can help.
“Food choices, independent of weight loss, may also help to reduce risk,” Dr. Tufano-Sugarman said. “Research has shown that the Mediterranean diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, nuts and legumes, fish and olive oil) is associated with a decreased risk of cancer. Whereas diets rich in red meat may be associated with an increased risk of colorectal and prostate cancer.” (More on this in the next section.)
Diet & Cancer Risk
SurvivorNet experts agree that diet and cancer risks are closely related.
Overcooked red meat, processed foods like bacon, as well as fatty meats have all been associated with an increased cancer risk.
However, removing these suspected triggers does not always stop cancer from developing, and indulging in them does not necessarily mean a person will get cancer. There is a bit more to understanding cancer risk than that.
We are exposed to carcinogens (substances that can cause cancer) throughout our daily lives, such as when we prepare food. But many people will not go on to develop the disease, according to Dr. Robert Wright, chair of the Department of Environmental Medicine and Public Health at Mount Sinai.
“We create carcinogens all the time in our foods when we cook them, and very few of us get cancer because our bodies can handle them,” Dr. Wright explained. “But some people have susceptibilities to these environmental carcinogens, which might be genetic or might be caused by combinations of carcinogens.”
It is important to understand that no one trigger is going to definitively cause cancer, Dr. Wright said, but it could be a combination of triggers in the environment.
“Cancer isn’t caused by one event, typically, it’s usually a series or combination of events,” he added. “So, it may be that you ate a lot of charred food, it may be that you’re also a smoker, it may be that you’ve inherited a genetic susceptibility to be a little bit more sensitive to those chemicals.”
No matter what anyone tells you, as far as we know, there is no single food that doctors can point to, with absolute certainty, and say it decreases cancer risk. That does not mean that healthy eating habits are not important — this is something Ree Drummond can attest to.
When it comes to dietary advice that applies to everyone, Dr. Wright is straightforward — eat more vegetables and stay active.
“What we haven’t figured out for cancer is, what is the combination of risk factors that end up leading to a particular person getting cancer,” Dr. Wright said during a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “The goal (in the future) is to identify those people who are more susceptible to cancer and to give them counseling and foods that they can eat and other habits like exercise that can reduce their risk. Right now, we’re not really good at predicting that.”
While some cancers do develop from inherited genes, most do not, so researchers are working on ways to understand how lifestyle factors like diet, exercise and chemical exposures put people at risk.
With that in mind, Dr. Wright stressed that eating well and staying active are still important — for all of us.
“In the end, prevention is actually kind of simple,” he said. “It’s what we always know. It’s exercise and eat well. That means eating more vegetables and less meats, particularly red meats.”
Contributing: SurvivorNet staff