Nutrition | Weight Loss

The Scary Connection Between Obesity and Cancer

How to Help Your Clients Make Life-Saving Changes

We have a big problem in this country and the world…and it’s only getting worse:

The prevalence of overweight and obese people has been increasing worldwide, and unless some changes in behavior occur, we will hit a peak within the next 10-20 years.1

The problem gets worse as evidence from research continues to grow and shows us that there is a definite link between obesity and cancer. Being obese puts you at a greater risk for developing at least eight different types of cancer.

As trainers, we have a unique opportunity to help clients make positive changes in their lives, not just to look better or be thinner, but to improve health and lower the risk of getting cancer.

Put in the simplest terms, there are two main things anyone can do to reduce the cancer risk:

  • Eat a healthy, nutrient-dense diet.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.

It sounds simple, and in many ways it is, but of course, most people struggle to make these positive changes. This is where trainers can help.

Advice Trainers Can Give Clients

As personal trainers, we can help our clients eat better and maintain healthier weights and body compositions. We can suggest simple, easy-to-follow nutrition guidelines such as:

  • Make sure to eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
  • When eating protein, stick to the leaner meats and avoid very fatty cuts.
  • Avoid alcohol and tobacco use.
  • Avoid processed food and meats.
  • Supplement the diet with healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, and fish oil.

In helping them lose weight and transition to maintaining a healthy weight, we can also suggest some specific guidelines:

  • Any increase in physical activity can help to decrease cancer risk.
  • Aim for at least 2.5 hours of physical activity per week for the best results.
  • Perform a combination of moderate and vigorous physical activity, including both low impact cardio and strength training.
  • Incorporate physical activity into your everyday routine.

Help Client's Wake-Up to the Real Risks of Obesity

Giving advice to your clients only goes so far. Some may take it, but most will need additional motivation, a little push and a way to be accountable. One useful way to do that may be to help your client regularly check his or her BMI, or body mass index (mass in kilograms divided by height in meters squared).  The CDC states, "Because no single body fat measure distinguishes health from disease or risk of disease, BMI should serve as the initial screening of overweight and obesity for adults... other factors, such as fat distribution, genetics, and fitness level, contribute to an individual’s assessment of disease risk.

The National Institutes of Health established these current categories for adults 20 or older based on BMI:The National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) from 2007-2008 shows that 68 percent of U.S. adults, 20 years old and above are overweight or obese – that’s a 12 percent increase from the results back in 1988-1994. Children and teens are getting bigger too.2 To date, one-third of our population is considered overweight or obese (BMI >25 & BMI > or = 30). 4

Keep in mind that as a trainer, you know that the Body Mass Index has its flaws, especially in its accuracy for athletes and bodybuilders for example. However, it will be a good tool to use to motivate your clients.

BMI and Cancer Risk

BMI increases have been linked to cancer, a scary fact that you can give to your clients to help motivate them to shed those extra pounds. Some of the most recent research has found that as BMI goes up by 5 kg/m2, cancer mortality increases by 10 percent. 4

Here is a table showing the most recent research analyzed by the World Cancer Research Fund International, showing that excess body fat is linked to an increased risk of developing 11 different cancers:4

Insulin and Cancer Risk

The pancreas releases insulin when blood sugar levels are getting high and brings them back down. Diabetes occurs when insulin stops working or there isn’t enough of it.

Insulin levels have been found to be elevated in obese people, and this has been found to be a contributing factor in the growth of cancer cells.3 Excess insulin and related hormones have been found to put people at risk for several different types of cancer, including breast, prostate, and colon cancers.

Help your clients manage their insulin levels with this advice:

  • Limit your daily intake of carbohydrates (50-100 grams per day seems to be the optimal guideline).
  • Avoid ‘simple’ and processed carbohydrates (pasta, white bread/rice, cookies, baked goods, sodas, etc.).
  • Consume moderate amounts of whole grains (brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potato).
  • Increase healthy fat intake (extra virgin olive oil, macadamia nut oil, nuts, salmon and fish oil, flax seeds, avocados, etc.).

Body Fat and Cancer Risk

We know being overweight or obese is unhealthy, but not many of us know the harm we are doing to ourselves when our fat cells continue to multiply and get larger. Here is what we do know:

  • Fat cells produce estrogen, and in excessive amounts, estrogen has been linked to breast cancer, endometrial cancer, and others.
  • Fat cells produce hormones called adipokines that may stimulate cancerous cell growth.
  • Fat cells may also influence the mTOR pathway and AMP-activated protein kinase, both tumor growth regulators.

The cancer-obesity connection is clear. However, there are many other factors involved: diet, exercise, body fat, and even hormones. It can all seem confusing, but the bottom line is that to reduce the risk of developing cancer we all need to eat well and be physically active. You, as a trainer, have a responsibility and an opportunity to educate your clients about the risks and help guide them through the positive changes that will make them healthier.

You can start helping your clients manage their body fat by sharing the four fundamentals as illustrated by the infographic above:

  • Increase physical activity. Add another day of resistance training or 10 more minutes of cardio per session.
  • Control caloric intake. Calculate how many calories you should be eating every day, depending on your goal, and follow it consistently.
  • Stick to healthy, nutrient-dense foods. Include plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, complete proteins, and healthy fats.
  • Get enough sleep. Six to eight hours of sleep per night is adequate.

Paul Hovan Jr.