By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
When I was seeing patients, my number one priority was helping them keep their hearts as healthy as possible. We’d talk about lifestyle, diet, medications—whatever each individual situation called for.
Inevitably, we’d end up talking about their other health concerns, too.
One of the biggest was cancer. Thankfully, most of my patients didn’t have cancer. But everyone seemed to know someone who did, and all of them worried about the possibility they could develop it too.
This never surprised me. Cancer is probably the most feared disease of our time. Treatment is brutal, and with some forms of the illness, the odds you’ll win the battle are still slim.
I’m not saying this to scare you. I’m saying it to emphasize just how important it is that you make lifestyle choices that help prevent cancer from getting started. And one of those, believe it or not, is losing weight.
Why Obesity Is a Risk Factor for Cancer
I’m not trying to be funny when I say overweight and obesity is a huge problem in our country. I see it everywhere I go, and no age group is immune.
According to the National Institutes of Health, more than a third of adults age 20 or older are considered obese, as are one-sixth of children and adolescents. Worse, a study just published in the New England Journal of Medicine projects that more than half of kids will become obese by the time they turn 35!
These statistics really worry me because obesity is linked to so many health problems. In addition to heart disease and diabetes, it’s a major player in sleep apnea, high blood pressure, stroke, pregnancy complications, diseases affecting the liver, kidneys, and gallbladder, as well as depression and anxiety.
Then there’s cancer. Carrying a lot of extra weight has been linked with no less than a dozen different types, including—
- Breast cancer
- Colorectal cancer
- Endometrial cancer
- Esophageal cancer
- Kidney cancer
- Pancreatic cancer
- Gallbladder cancer
- Liver cancer
- Non-Hodgkins lymphoma
- Ovarian cancer
- Cervical cancer
- Prostate cancer
- Multiple myeloma
What makes obesity a risk factor for cancer is the same thing that makes it a risk factor for heart disease—inflammation.
Here’s how it works.
Fat tissue—especially the kind we store around our bellies—produces chemicals that change how our bodies and cells function. For example, they can affect how we produce and use hormones. They can also affect how well cell growth is regulated. But most importantly, they turn on the body’s inflammatory response.
Whenever the inflammatory response is “on,” so are our cell growth signals. That makes sense because inflammation is part of the body’s natural repair process when we get hurt or sick. The problem is that when the response is always on, it can damage the DNA in healthy cells and cause them to become cancerous.
How to Lose Weight to Reduce Cancer Risk
The good news in this is that, for most people, obesity is a cancer risk factor you can control. The bad news is that losing weight is neither fun nor easy for many people. But you can get good results by adopting the right mindset and the right diet.
I mention mindset because it’s important, with weight loss, to start the process with a lot of positive intention. Don’t be frustrated if you don’t get the results you hoped for right away. Keep going, and remind yourself that you’re getting healthier every day—the number on your scale will eventually catch up with your thoughts.
Now, let’s talk diet.
Contrary to popular opinion, the key to losing weight isn’t exercise. It’s eating right. My favorite plan for that? The Pan Asian Modified Mediterranean (PAMM) diet.
How PAMM Helps Prevent Cancer and Reduce Weight
PAMM is perfect for this because it kills two birds with one stone—it helps reduce the amount of inflammation in your body and it supports weight loss efforts.
Now, normally I don’t promote PAMM as a weight loss diet because I think of it more as a lifestyle choice. But I’ve had many patients over the years tell me that it helped them manage their weight. Here are some of the reasons why:
- Reduced calorie intake. One of the first things PAMM calls for is cutting out processed foods and high-glycemic carbs, like cookies, pastries, chips, candy, soda, and other junk foods that we mindlessly eat throughout the day. Most of these foods are high in calories and low in nutrients—a bad combination for weight control. Of course, some of those calories will be replaced with other PAMM foods. However, those foods will be more nutrient dense so you won’t have to eat as many of them to give your body the nourishment it needs.
- Fewer cravings. Another advantage to getting rid of sugary foods is that you won’t have the big rollercoaster-like peaks and valleys in your blood sugar level. When blood sugar goes too low, the body craves more sugary foods to raise it back up. That’s why it can be so hard to say no to afternoon and bedtime snacks—your glucose levels from lunch and dinner have fallen to the point that triggers a craving. By getting rid of fluctuations like that, cravings are less common and you’re less likely to snack or overeat.
- Less hunger. PAMM also encourages you to eat a lot more healthy fats. It may seem counterintuitive that eating more fat can help you burn fat, but it’s true! First, it takes the body longer to digest fats than carbs, so they keep you feeling full longer, so hunger is less of an issue. Plus, they’re a great source of energy, which helps prevent the lulls that make people want to snack.
In addition to weight loss, PAMM can also help prevent cancer in other ways.
It’s high in fiber, which is a well-known way to help prevent colon cancer. It’s also high in antioxidant nutrients—particularly polyphenols—which help reduce the level of inflammation in the body. Most plant foods, including my favorite part of PAMM—olive oil—contain these nutrients. That’s why eating more fruits and vegetables is commonly recommended as a prevention tactic.
Cancer may be a frightening disease, but remember this: You have a lot of control over some of the major risk factors for it. Start by eating better with PAMM. Your body will thank you for it.
- American Cancer Society. Does Body Weight Affect Cancer Risk? Accessed November 30, 2017.
- National Cancer Institute. Chronic Inflammation. Accessed November 30, 2017.
- National Institutes of Health. Health Risks of Being Overweight. Accessed November 30, 2017.
- National Institutes of Health. Overweight & Obesity Statistics. Accessed November 30, 2017.
- Rakoff-Nahoum S. Why Cancer and Inflammation? Yale J Biol Med. 2006 Dec; 79(3-4): 123–130.
- Ward ZJ, et al. Simulation of growth trajectories of childhood obesity into adulthood. N Engl J Med. 2017; 377:2145-2153.
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