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Cancer Risks Related To Being Overweight or Obese

According to Cancer Research UK, being overweight or obese is the second biggest cause of cancer.[1] It is becoming more prevalent in African-Caribbean populations. Here’s why!

Being overweight and obesity, in general, is showing an increasing trend especially in the Sub-Saharan African populations. This ever-increasing prevalence of obesity can be explained by:

  • Changes in urbanization
  • Increased consumption of fast foods and unhealthy diets
  • Inactive lifestyle
  • Increased intake of ultra-processed foods

All these factors combined can lead to slow metabolic rate or low digestive activity and reduced immunity to fight against chronic diseases such as heart problems, diabetes, and cancer.[2]

How can you differentiate if you’re normal, overweight, or obese?

Being overweight or obese means your intake of fat-containing unhealthy food is way higher than your physical activity. However, being overweight and obese can be differentiated using a simple metric i.e. Body Mass Index or BMI.

BMI is the ratio of your weight to your height. It is obtained through dividing weight (in kilograms) by the square of height (in meters).[3]

Here’s the table you can use to check if you’re overweight, obese or normal…

BMI range Weight classification
Less than 18.5 Underweight
18.5 – 24.9 Normal
25-29.9 Overweight
Greater than 30 Obese


How to Calculate Your Body Mass Index:


Weigh yourself. If you don’t have a scale at home, many pharmacies or supermarkets often offer the service for a few coins. You can also go to the doctor or other medical offices where they help you weigh yourself. You should weigh yourself in kilograms. Let’s pretend you weigh 88 kilograms.

You then measure yourself. You can use a measuring tape. Measure your height in meters. Let’s say you measure 1 meter and 75 centimeters, which is 1.75 m.

The formula for Body Mass Index is simple. You only need to divide your weight by the square of your height!

BMI = weight in kilograms / (height in meters)2

In our example: My BMI = 88 / (1.75)2 = 88 / 3.06 = 28.75

So then you go to the range provided and check which category you belong to. In this case, 28.75 would classify as overweight.

The big question is how being overweight or obese can increase your risk of developing cancer?

According to the researchers at the National Cancer Institute which is part of the National Institute of Health (NIH), the increased risk of cancer with being excessively overweight or obese can be explained by the following four reasons:

  1. Excessive production of estrogen hormone
  2. Fat tissues tend to produce more estrogen and excessive production of this hormone can lead to the development of cancer at various sites especially breast, ovaries, and endometrium (the innermost lining of the uterus).

  3. Chronic, low-level inflammation
  4. Low levels of inflammation over a long period of time are often observed in obese people. This type of chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and ultimately leads to increased chances of cancer development.

    For example, chronic inflammation in the liver leads to liver cancer development, chronic inflammation in the gallbladder leads to gallstones and ultimately gallbladder cancer and inflammation in the gut may lead to esophageal cancer.

  5. Increased insulin levels
  6. Excessive consumption of unhealthy foods leads to increased levels of insulin and insulin growth factor within your blood. If you keep eating unhealthy/sugary foods, then over time it can cause diabetes.

    Diabetes and cancer occur together so commonly that it cannot be explained by chance alone! And can lead to the development of cancer at various sites e.g. kidney, colon, and endometrium.

  7. Fat cells can directly affect the development of cancer
  8. High BMI or being overweight means you have a higher level of fat cells accumulated within your body. These fat cells often contribute directly to the increased risk or development of cancer.

    They produce hormones like adipokines which can stop or increase cell growth. Leptin, a type of adipokine, is produced more when you have more fat cells accumulated. It increases the growth of cells and can increase the risk of cancer.

What are the types of cancers associated with excessive weight gain or being obese?

Several studies suggested that increased BMI or in simple words excessive weight gain is associated with increased risk of different types of cancers. For e.g.

  • Breast – Obese or overweight women in the postmenopausal stage are 20-40% more likely to develop breast cancer.
  • Colon and rectal – Obese people are 30% more likely to develop colorectal cancers.
  • Kidney – The risk of developing kidney cancer in obese people is twice as compared to normal-weight people.
  • Thyroid – Higher BMI is associated with almost 10% increased risk of cancer.
  • Other types include endometrium, gallbladder, liver, pancreas, and ovarian cancers.

Why is it important to maintain the ideal body weight and how?

Gaining excessive weight during adulthood, sudden loss or gain in weight, and high birth weight are also associated with an increased risk of cancer. Therefore, maintaining ideal body weight is crucial for preventing any chances of cancer development.

Ideal body weight can be maintained simply by monitoring how much you consume and how much you spend in terms of energy. Eating a moderate amount of healthy diet and sticking to at least 30 mins of daily exercise can help you to maintain the ideal body weight.

Here’s what you can do to maintain the ideal body weight and body mass index (BMI)!

  1.   Increase the intake of vegetables and fruits – Fruits and vegetables are rich in nutrients like vitamins, folate, calcium, and phytochemicals such as antioxidants. All these nutrients help your body to fight and defend itself against cancer development.
  2.   Decrease the consumption of fatty and sugary foods – They increase the level of insulin in your blood and can lead to the development of Type II diabetes and ultimately cancer.
  3.   Follow an exercise routine daily –Increased physical activity has multiple benefits such as increased immunity, maintenance of ideal body functioning, reduced accumulation of fat cells within the body, and more. Therefore, a moderate amount of exercise i.e. 30-60 mins/day can have profound effects on your overall health.

The bottom line 

Being overweight or obese might increase your chances of developing cancer over time but it is totally preventable. Simply, make the right choices when it comes to grocery shopping and diet planning, and try to incorporate a moderate amount of exercise into your routine.


Biadgilign, S., Mgutshini, T., Haile, D., Gebremichael, B., Moges, Y., & Tilahun, K. (2017). Epidemiology of obesity and overweight in sub-Saharan Africa: a protocol for a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ open, 7(11), e017666.


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