Obesity & Cancer – What you need to know

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Here at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine Integrative Cancer Centre (CCNM ICC), we commonly answer questions about the connection between diet, exercise, blood sugar, weight and cancer. Fortunately, there is good research available to draw upon and through working with a naturopathic doctor at the CCNM ICC, you can have an individualized plan designed with the twin goals of supporting cancer prevention and supporting reduced recurrence. In order to maximize the anti-cancer benefits from these interventions you need a long-term plan that is sustainable for you.

Eat a Healthy Diet

This is key to overall health and can help lower the risk of numerous cancers. Here at the CCNM ICC, we provide individual diet-based recommendations based on your cancer type and individual biochemistry. We are all biochemically unique, meaning that our nutritional and chemical make-up varies and therefore dietary needs vary as well. Read more about some of our Anti-Cancer Diet Guidelines here.

The most important aspect of diet for cancer prevention is likely overnutrition – overeating calories which leads to weight gain, which connects to maintaining a healthy weight. Outside of this, good evidence shows that a diet low in animal products and high in plant-based nutrition is coupled to cancer prevention. Cancers with a link to diet include: breast, colon, lung, esophageal, oral, pancreatic, prostate, pharyngeal, laryngeal, stomach, kidney and uterine.

Balance Your Blood Sugar

This, of course, is connected to eating a healthy diet, exercise and maintaining a healthy weight.

Many of our patients have researched online the “Sugar Feeds Cancer Theory” and are working to avoid any-and-all sugar – impossible! All carbohydrates in the body, meaning all fruits and vegetables, are processed by the body into sugar, therefore avoiding all sugar would mean a diet high in protein and fat, which is not recommended. What is key in understanding how sugar and cancer are connected is insulin and insulin-like growth factor-1 (IGF-1). Remember that insulin is a hormone, produced by the pancreas, that allows sugar to get into the cell, and when insulin rises, so does the hormone IGF-1. Both hormones have been known to stimulate cell growth and IGF-1 can even stop cell-programmed death (apoptosis) – both very bad things when you are dealing with cancer. When we have a food or meal that is high in sugar, insulin and IGF-1 will increase. Fiber is the key in slowing the release of sugar from foods – think whole apples versus apple juice. The whole apple contains fiber, which will slow down that release of sugar, leading to less insulin and IGF-1 being secreted, compared to the juice, which is fiber-less and essentially dumps a load of sugar into the bloodstream, raising insulin and IGF-1. Whole foods are all high in fiber, in contrast with refined and processed foods which are low. A diet high in fiber-rich vegetables, fruits and grains has a protective effect and leads to balanced blood sugar.

Exercise Regularly

Regular physical activity is essential in weight and blood sugar management and all three go hand-in-hand; if you are exercising regularly, your weight will reach a healthy level, and your blood sugar will stabilize. In terms of cancer prevention and reducing recurrence, regular exercise is widely accepted as fundamental. What does regular physical activity mean? Recommendations for this generally are around either 30 minutes of moderate activity (like brisk walking) five or more days per week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity (like running), three or more days per week. There is one important point missing from this recommendation by the American Cancer Society – you need to elevate your heart rate and breathing to get the benefits. This recommendation however is only regarding cardiovascular/aerobic activity; in order to get the full benefits of exercise for weight and blood sugar management and anti-cancer effects, we need to build muscle mass, which can be accomplished through resistance training.

Maintaining a Healthy Weight

According to the American Cancer Society, maintaining a healthy weight is one of the most important risk factors for cancer. Being obese, which means your body mass index (BMI) is equal to or greater than 30, is most concerning and lowering your BMI not only reduces your risk for cancer, but for numerous other disease states as well. Maintaining a healthy weight involves both diet and exercise changes and for the vast majority of us, stress and mood support. At the CCNM ICC, we commonly see chronic high-stress responses as an obstacle to weight loss and addressing the body’s response to stress and mood is an important part of sustainable weight management. Our body wants to keep and maintain weight in a high-stress state and although we can’t always remove the stressor, we can work to modify how we respond to it.

We put all of our patients on our InBody770 body composition analyzer which tells us how much muscle, fat and water we have. Read more about why knowing your body composition matters here.

Take-aways:

A healthy weight, balanced blood sugar, good nutrition and regular exercise are all connected and we should not underestimate the effect they can have on our health in reducing our risk of cancer and preventing recurrence.

There are additional steps you can take to reduce of the risk of some individual cancers, yet working to achieve a healthy diet and weight, regular exercise and stable blood sugar will provide a substantial benefit. Naturopathic medicine at the CCNM ICC is a whole-person approach that works to address root-causes and allows you more time with a health professional to develop an individualized, long-term and sustainable plan that will work for you.