How does being overweight or obese affect our cancer risk?

Research shows a direct link between being overweight and obese and 11 different types of cancer including bowel, breast (in postmenopausal women), gallbladder, kidney, liver, oesophagus (adenocarcinoma), ovary, pancreas, advanced prostate, stomach (cardia) and womb cancer. In England in 2015-2016, 62% of adults were overweight or obese. Even scarier, 28% of children from 2-15 years of age were overweight or obese. This alone is increasing their risk of developing cancer later in life before we even start talking about their dietary habits or physical activity levels.


There are a number of ways being overweight or obese can increase your risk of these cancers including:

  • Fat cells encourages the body to produce growth hormones which can promote the growth of cancer cells

  • The more overweight we are, the more fat cells our body stores. These fat cells produce hormones like oestrogen also which research shows increases the risk and promotes the growth of breast and womb cancer.

  • Fat cells can also stimulate the body to have an inflammatory response which may also increase the risk of several cancers.

So what should we do to reduce our cancer risk?

The World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF) is the world's leading authority on the link between diet, weight, physical activity and cancer. The Continuous Update Project is an ongoing programme that the WCRF runs to continually analyse global research on these links and provide us with the most up-to-date guidance on what we can do on a daily basis within our normal lives to minimise the risk of cancer from lifestyle factors.  This is outlined in their 10 Cancer Prevention Recommendations. Their first recommendation is:

'Be as lean as possible without becoming underweight'

What is a healthy weight?

To determine if you are a healthy weight, we measure your weight and height to work out your Body Mass Index (BMI). You can do this using the BMI calculator below:

If your BMI is between 18.5-24.9kg/m² you are a healthy weight for your height. If it is less than this you are underweight and would benefit from gaining some weight to achieve a BMI in the healthy range. If your BMI is >25kg/m², you are carrying too much weight and can lower your cancer risk by losing weight. Checking your BMI is only an estimate and is not very accurate in older people, pregnant women, those with a high muscle mass like athletes, some ethnic groups and those less than 5 foot tall.

It is also important to understand the distribution of extra weight around your body as too much weight or fat around your stomach is associated with an increased risk of cancer, but also diabetes and heart disease. A healthy waist measurement for men is <94cm/37 inches and for women is <80cm/31.5 inches.

What can you do to be a healthy weight?

You can maintain your weight by balancing the amount of energy you take in through your diet and the amount of energy you expend through your body’s daily requirements and your daily physical activity. Think of it like a see-saw; if you consume more than you expend you will gain weight and vice versa. A typical man needs around 2500 calories per day and a woman needs around 2000 calories per day. If you take in more than this, you need to do more exercise to balance it out.

  • Losing just 5-10% of your weight has huge health benefits.

  • Small changes make a big difference in the long term

  • A weight loss of 0.5 to 2 lbs per week is a realistic goal

The following resources from the British Dietetic Association will provide you with practical ideas on how to be more active and eat more healthily to lose weight. However, you must first decide why you want to lose weight and change your lifestyle habits because it is important for success to choose a time that is right for you.

If you find it easier to stick to a structured meal plan to lose weight, most men will lose weight on a 1800 calorie per day meal plan most women will lose weight on 1500 calories per day. Ideally, you need to eat 500-600 calories fewer than your daily calorie needs in order to lose a healthy 0.5kg/1lb per week - you may lose more if you're more active too. A structured meal plan can be found below:

It is also important to track the changes to your diet and activity levels to help keep you motivated and to identify where you might be able to improve further.

Weight diary:

12 week planner:

Exercise is an extremely important part of the weight loss process so don’t forget it! It not only helps you to burn more calories, but also helps to increase your muscle mass (especially resistance exercise) and improves your mood. When you incorporate it into your lifestyle regularly, it helps to keep the weight off which is the part that people often struggle with the most. Build up the amount of exercise you do slowly so that it is realistic for you to keep it up and choose something you enjoy. It is also good to incorporate more exercise into your usual daily routine such as getting off the bus earlier to walk or cycling instead of getting the train.

Everyone will slip up now and again and it is okay to have a little treat now again. Remember to reward yourself when you do reach your target and then make another one. If you do slip up, accept it and get back on track again. No one is perfect all of the time!

What is a Dietitian?

What is a Dietitian?

Dietitians are qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level. They translate the most up-to-date scientific research on food, health and disease into practical advice that people can use to change their everyday lifestyle and dietary habits to improve their health. Dietitians are experts in food and nutrition and can use their knowledge to help prevent and treat various health conditions including cancer.

Dietitians can work in a wide variety of areas including hospitals, community health sectors, as health educators in public health, in the NHS or private practice, food service and industry, sport, education, media or research.

Registered Dietitians are qualified health professionals that assess, diagnose and treat diet and nutrition problems at an individual and wider public health level
— British Dietetic Association

Dietitians are the only nutrition professionals to be regulated by law, and are governed by an ethical code to ensure that they always work to the highest standard. All Registered Dietitians are registered with the Health & Care Professions Council (HCPC) which is an independent, UK-wide health regulator that sets standards of professional training, performance and conduct for 14 professions including dietitians. They ensure dietitians stay up to date through continuing professional development and ensure we meet the highest standards to protect the public.

Dietitians are statutorily regulated, with a protected title and governed by an ethical code to ensure that they always work to the highest standard.
— British Dietetic Association

What is a Nutritionist?

Nutritionists are qualified to provide information about food and healthy eating, but not about special diets for medical conditions. Nutritionists are not required to be registered in order to work in the UK. Their title is not protected by law so anyone can call themselves a nutritionist. Therefore, it is advisable to check they are registered with the UK Voluntary Register of Nutritionists (UKVRN) run by the Association for Nutrition. However, it is not a legal requirement for a nutritionist to be registered with the UKVRN.

What is a Nutritional Therapist?

Nutritional therapists encompass the use of recommendations for diet and lifestyle in order to alleviate or prevent ailments, often based on complementary ‘medicine’ recommendations not recognised as valid treatment in conventional medicine. Nutritional therapists use treatments such as high dose vitamins, detox, and food avoidance for which there is little robust scientific evidence. They are not independently regulated and there title is not protected by law so anyone can call themselves a nutritional therapist or diet expert.

Who should I choose to provide me with reliable dietary advice?

Choosing the right person to seek help and advice from can sometimes be a confusing task. Many people claim to be experts in nutrition yet have very limited knowledge and offer no protection to the public. This leaflet from the British Dietetic Association is very useful as it explains the differences between dietitians, nutritionists and nutritional therapists so you can choose an appropriate person to provide you with reliable dietary advice.

Lifestyle and cancer risk - Is there really a link?

We see information in the media nearly every day telling us about what we should be eating to stay healthy and recommending the next ‘superfood’ that will prevent us from getting cancer. But how much truth is behind these claims? What is a healthy diet and can it really reduce our risk of getting cancer?

Firstly, let’s look at what the risk factors for cancer are. Cancer is caused by damage to the DNA or genetic make up of our cells. Cells are the building blocks of our body which are controlled by this DNA. If it is damaged, the cells can start to multiply uncontrollably to produce a cluster of cells which is often called a tumour. This tumour is not always cancerous, but if it is, it can grow bigger and invade surrounding healthy organs and tissues and can spread to other parts of the body also. We don’t know exactly what causes many cancers but there are certain things that can increase your cancer risk.

  • Inherited genes - Research shows that these genes only cause about 5-10% of cancers and scientists have linked genes to certain cancers such as bowel and breast cancer.

  • Infectious diseases – some infectious diseases can increase the risk of cancer such as Helicobacter pylori bacteria which can increase the risk of stomach cancer, HPV (human papilloma virus) which is linked to cervical cancer and Hepatitis B and C which is linked to liver cancer.

  • Occupational and environmental factors – Certain harmful substances found in the workplace or environment have been found to cause cancer including asbestos which is a natural mineral that can cause damage to the lungs which is now banned in the UK. The main environmental factor that can cause cancer is exposure to the sun or ultraviolet light (UV) which is linked to skin cancer.

  • Lifestyle factors – Smoking alone is responsible for 90% of lung cancers so avoiding smoking or quitting it is the most important action you can take to reduce your risk of cancer. After that, ABOUT ONE THIRD of the most common cancers in the UK could be prevented by EATING A HEALTHY DIET, being PHYSICALLY ACTIVE and maintaining a HEALTHY WEIGHT. That is about 80,000 cases in the UK every year so yes there is definitely a link between your lifestyle and risk of developing cancer! 

Over the next few blogs, I am going to explain how diet, physical activity and weight can either reduce or increase your cancer risk based on the most up to date scientific research currently available. Stay tuned!