Fatties more likely to get cancer

// 7 November 2007

The Guardian today has a report on a new study that suggests that around 6,000 out of 120,000 new cases of cancer a year in women are linked to weight gain, which is a particular danger to post-menopausal women.

In endometrial cancer, which affects the lining of the womb, and in adenocarcinoma of the oesophagus, the authors say in the British Medical Journal online today, excess weight is “a major modifiable risk factor”. Around half of all the cases they found among the women studied (51% and 48% respectively) were caused by the woman being overweight – and could therefore have been prevented by better diet and exercise.

“By comparison, the estimated proportion of cancers attributable to being overweight or obese was between 10% and 20% for multiple myeloma, kidney cancer, leukaemia and pancreatic cancer,” they write. It was below 10% for the other cancers studied.

This is an important finding, and further evidence that looking after one’s health with a good diet and exercise is no bad thing. But the first thing that sprung to my mind was, what about men? 23% of all women in England are obese and 34% are overweight. For men the equivalent figures are 21% and 47%. Although a slightly greater number of women are obese, the number of men who are overweight is significantly greater. I would be interested in the links between obesity and cancer in men. Perhaps an equivalent study has been done with men and has not produced interesting results. Or perhaps male fatties are just not considered newsworthy, because most men by and large are either not bothered by being slightly overweight or unaware of it. If this really is a female-specific link then it’s absolutely right that it should be presented as such. But if obesity is also a risk factor for men then porky females are being unnecessarily demonised as drains on the NHS, and more importantly, men are being denied information that could potentially have a massive impact on their health.

As for the girls, I put it to you that it’s actually bloody difficult for a woman not to be fat in our society. We are taught that staying fit involves mincing around in the gym in pink lycra without actually breaking a sweat, and that if we don’t have the body of a yoga bunny we can forget it anyway. We are taught to equate chocolate and other fatty, sugary foods with a whole host of emotional responses. We are taught that eating anything that contains calories is “naughty”, but when all you’ve had for lunch is a minuscule salad, that family pack of Revels has never looked so good.

If a woman takes on board everything she is taught, she aspires to what is probably an unattainable figure, refuses to take any exercise because she might get sweaty and dishevelled, tries to live on salad, cracks and consoles herself with “sinful” “indulgent” chocolate and probably ends up fatter than she would have been had she stuck two fingers up at Cosmopolitan rather than down her throat.

I don’t really think that the above woman actually exists, but there are millions of women who go through life in a rather less vacuous and extreme version of this model, and for those who are fat because of it the health risks are extremely worrying.

I think that we should all look after ourselves by enjoying a healthy diet and participating in a form of exercise that we enjoy not because we aspire to a certain look or even because we’re scared of cancer, but because we owe it to ourselves. And we shouldn’t feel guilty about eating chocolate – it’s just chocolate, and it would be sacrilege to sully the wonderful experience of scoffing it with mindless guilt and visions of our magically expanding waistlines.

For those who do need to lose weight, Cancer Research UK has the following advice:

Eat at roughly same time each day; eat reduced fat foods; walk for 60-90 minutes a day; pack a healthy snack; check labels for fat and sugar; watch portion size; stand up for 10 minutes of each hour; choose water over squash; eat slowly; eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

This sounds considerably less arduous than the Atkins, Cabbage Soup and E-Coli* diets that the media would have us put ourselves through.

*I may possibly have made this one up

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