Cancer study says ‘be thin’

Even if you are not overweight, you should slim down to reduce your risk of cancer, according to a 2007 study by the U.K.’s World Cancer Research Fund.

The BBC reported yesterday that – even if you are not overweight – you should slim down to reduce your risk of cancer.

So says the United Kingdom’s World Cancer Research Fund, whose website carries the tagline “pioneers in cancer prevention.”

The WCRF UK examined 7,000 existing studies over six years to create what they call “the most comprehensive investigation ever into the risks of certain lifestyle choices.”

The result? According to the WCRF UK, everyone should aim to be as thin as possible without becoming underweight, in order to decrease the risk of cancer.

The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a calculation which takes into account height and weight. A BMI of between 18.5 and 25 has been considered a “healthy” weight range. But the new report says that risk increases as an individual heads towards the 25 mark, and that “everyone should try to be as close to the lower end as possible.”

The WCRF UK report includes more specific recommendations for cancer prevention.

Limit red meat
Limit alcohol
Avoid bacon, ham, and other processed meats
No sugary drinks
No weight gain after 21
Exercise every day
Breastfeed children
Do not take dietary supplements to cut cancer

These are recommendations, say the report’s author’s, not commandments. For the most part, I like them and agree with them. They sound sensible. We all know that it isn’t healthy to be overweight, and, unless you’ve been living on the moon, you know that obesity has become a critical public health problem in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world.

But no weight gain after 21? Right.

I have to wonder if this report took the difference between male and female physiology into account. To me, older women look better – healthier – when they are a little heavier. I know I feel in many ways stronger now – with a few extra pounds – than I did when I was my daughters’ ages (24 and 27) and very thin. I have a BMI of 24.2, by the way. Getting down “as close as possible” to a BMI of 18.5 would require me to go back to the weight I had at age 12.

What’s more, thinness is a risk factor for osteoporosis, the disease in which the bones of older women (and men) become less dense and break more easily. My grandmother was one of many women of her generation who died after breaking a hip and, essentially, never getting up again. According to the National Osteoporosis Foundation website, bone structure and body weight do play a role in osteoporosis, with “small-boned and thin women (under 127 pounds) … at greater risk.” Plus, we older women like to remind each other that fat cells hold a little estrogen, with its ability not only to protect the bones but also to relieve menopausal symptoms.

As the BBC article points out, many cancers are not thought to be related to lifestyle. But the report’s authors say that – of the 10 million cases of cancer diagnosed across the world each year – perhaps three million could be prevented if the recommendations were followed. Saving three million lives would be a good thing. On the other hand, you could always deny yourself red meat, alcohol and so on, become very thin … and still get cancer.

The WCRF UK study is interesting. But, knowing a bit about Asian thought, I’ll stick to the advice of the ancient Chinese philosophers: practice moderation.

Photo credit: Thou Shalt Have No Other Food Before Me image by Flickr user Frengo. Used with permission.

Deborah Byrd