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Landmark Report: Excess Body Fat Causes Cancer

Panel Also Implicates Red Meat, Processed Meat and Alcohol

WASHINGTON, DC -- The evidence that excess body fat increases the risk of developing cancer is much stronger now than ever before, according to a landmark report issued today by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and the World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF). . Evidence linking consumption of alcohol, red meat and processed meat to increased risk is also deemed convincing.

Released today at a Washington news conference, the report – Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective -- is the most comprehensive ever published on the evidence linking cancer risk to diet, physical activity and weight. The result of a five-year process involving nine independent teams of scientists from around the world, hundreds of peer reviewers, and 21 international experts who reviewed and analyzed over 7,000 large-scale studies, the report includes 10 recommendations for cancer prevention. The report is available online at

“The most striking finding in the report is that excess body fat increases risk for numerous cancers. That is why body weight is the focus of our first recommendation,” expert panel member W. Phillip T. James, M.D., D.Sc., said today. James spoke at a press conference previewing the 517-page report published on November 1.

Body Fat Convincingly Linked to Six Cancers
Finding that the evidence is now convincing that carrying excess body fat increases risk for cancer of the colon, kidney, pancreas, adenocarcinoma of the esophagus and endometrium as well as post-menopausal breast cancer, the report recommends that people aim to stay within the healthy weight range (18.5 to 24.9) on the BMI chart throughout adult life. It further recommends staying as lean as possible within that range.

This recommendation is more stringent than AICR — and most other organizations — have previously issued on weight and reflects the stronger evidence that has emerged over the last few years. When the first AICR report was published in 1997, only the evidence linking body fat to endometrial cancer was judged to be convincing.

“The recommendation reflects what the science is telling us today. Even small amounts of excess body fat, especially if carried at the waist, increase risk,” James said.

Because the evidence on weight gain is now so much stronger, the new report offers two evidence-based recommendations on how to avoid excess body fat. First, the report calls for limiting the intake of “energy-dense foods,” especially processed foods high in added sugar, or low in fiber, or high in fat. Burgers, French fries, milk shakes and pastries were examples cited in the report, as were sugary drinks.

Second, the report advocates being physically active for at least 30 minutes each day. The evidence shows that physical activity offers a double bonus by reducing cancer risk in its own right while helping to maintain a healthy weight, which is also protective.

Panel Urges Limits on Red Meat
Compared to 1997, when AICR released its first global report on the association between diet and cancer, the new assessment finds the evidence linking red meat (beef, pork and lamb) to colorectal cancer is more convincing than it was a decade ago. Accordingly, AICR’s expert panel recommends limiting consumption of red meat to 18 ounces (cooked) per week. Beyond this amount, the evidence indicates, every 1.7 ounces of red meat consumed per day increases cancer risk by 15 percent.

The recommendation concerning processed meats is even more rigorous. Based on convincing evidence, the panel recommends avoiding processed meats such as bacon, ham, sausage and lunchmeat. After carefully examining all of the evidence, the panel was not able to find a level at which consumption of processed meat could be reliably considered completely safe. Every 1.7 ounces of processed meat consumed per day increases risk of colorectal cancer by 21 percent.

“That’s why we recommend that if people eat processed meat at all, they save it for special occasions like ham at Christmas or the occasional hot dog at a baseball game,” said James.

In a separate recommendation, the panel advises planning meals around non-starchy vegetables and fruits. These plant foods can be eaten in conjunction with foods of animal origin other than red meat, such as poultry, fish and eggs.

“We are recommending 5 servings or more of vegetables and fruit daily because, like physical activity, they pack a double whammy against cancer. Probable evidence indicates they help reduce cancer risk on their own, and as low-energy-dense foods, they help maintain a healthy weight, which the evidence shows has a big influence on cancer risk,” James said.

Alcohol Consumption Linked to Cancer
The AICR expert panel found the evidence convincing that alcoholic drinks are linked to cancers of the mouth, pharynx, larynx, esophagus, as well as colorectal cancer in men and pre-and post-menopausal cancer in women. In addition, alcoholic drinks are a probable cause of liver cancer and of colorectal cancer in women.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are talking about wine, beer or spirits, when it comes to cancer, even small amounts of alcohol raise your risk. In light of evidence suggesting that small amounts of alcohol protect against heart disease, however, the panel decided to recommend limiting rather than avoiding consumption,” James said.

The full recommendation says, “If alcoholic drinks are consumed, limit consumption to no more than 2 drinks a day for men and I drink a day for women.” The distinction has to do with differing body composition in the two sexes.

Recommendations Offer Pattern for Life
Although equally important, other recommendations involve special or limited populations:

  • People concerned about risk of stomach cancer should reduce salt intake.
  • People who currently look to supplements for cancer protection should instead try to get protective nutrients from whole foods.
  • Mothers should breast feed when practical and babies should be breastfed.
  • To reduce risk of recurrence, cancer survivors should follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

“Cancer is preventable. There are changes you can make in your daily life that will reduce your chances of developing cancer,” James said.

He pointed out that, taken together, the recommendations outline a clear and consistent way of living that fosters a longer healthy life.

“Let’s get more vegetables, fruits and other low-energy-density foods every day, which will leave less room for meat. Let’s get off our backsides however and whenever we can.”

Accomplish these changes to diet and activity level and you are on your way to getting and staying as lean as possible, which is our first recommendation, he said.

“This is a pattern for living with the potential to save millions of lives. If these recommendations were adopted around the world, scientists estimate it could prevent about one-third of global cancer cases,” James said.

Recommendations for Cancer Prevention

1. Be as lean as possible within the normal range of body weight.
2. Be physically active as part of everyday life.
3. Limit consumption of energy-dense foods. Avoid sugary drinks.
4. Eat mostly foods of plant origin.
5. Limit intake of red meat and avoid processed meat.
6. Limit alcoholic drinks.
7. Limit consumption of salt. Avoid moldy cereals (grains) or pulses (legumes).
8. Aim to meet nutritional needs through diet alone.

Special Population Recommendations

9. Mothers to breastfeed; children to be breastfed.
10. Cancer survivors to follow the recommendations for cancer prevention.

And always remember – do not smoke or chew tobacco.

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The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) is the cancer charity that fosters research on diet and cancer and educates the public about the results. It has contributed more than $82 million for innovative research conducted at universities, hospitals and research centers across the country. AICR also provides a wide range of educational programs to help millions of Americans learn to make dietary changes for lower cancer risk. Its award-winning New American Plate program is presented in brochures, seminars and on its website, AICR is a member of the World Cancer Research Fund International

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