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Ounce of Prevention |The cancer/obesity connection

Published:Wednesday | June 27, 2018 | 12:00 AMDr Tony Vendryes

The recent Medical Association of Jamaica (MAJ) 2018 Symposium focused on obesity. I congratulate the MAJ on finally bringing this enormous problem into sharp focus.

Experts from our region analysed and dissected obesity from every angle. Their conclusion was that the obesity epidemic is like a tsunami that, if not checked, will rapidly destroy the health and wellness of the Caribbean people.

One of the many diseases related to excess body fat is the dreaded cancer. According to recent research, obesity itself encourages new cancers and promotes the growth of existing tumours. Studies on animals published in the journal Cancer Research showed that tumours in obese mice grew much faster than in lean mice eating the same diet.

Among men, obesity is strongly associated with an increased risk of colorectal cancer. The distribution of body fat appears to be an important factor.

Abdominal obesity, fat around the waist, which can be easily checked by waist circumference measurement, shows the strongest association with colon cancer risk. The bigger your belly, the higher your risk of that cancer. The association between waist circumference and colon cancer risk is also seen in women but is not as strong.

Recent studies using MRI imaging suggest that increased fat deposits surrounding a man's prostate (peri-prostatic fat) induce increased inflammation in the gland and heighten the risk of the development of cancer in that organ.

There are several possible explanations suggested to explain this association between obesity and an increased risk of certain cancers.




There are different types of fat. White fat is found predominantly around the abdomen and acts as storage for excess calories not burnt up to produce energy. Brown fat is a healthier fat and when burnt generates heat - it burns energy rather than storing it.

Research indicates that certain groups of people tend to have more brown fat than others, and there are direct correlations between the activation of brown fat and good health.

- Slender people have more brown fat than obese people.

- Younger people have more brown fat than elderly people.

- People with normal blood sugar levels have more brown fat than those with high blood sugar

Researchers have discovered that the presence of cancer actually triggers "white fat" cells to migrate into the blood stream. Once these cells find an existing tumor, they help provide oxygen and nutrients to the tumor, and actually feed the growth of the cancer.




Fatty tissues produce excess amounts of the hormone estrogen, high levels of which are associated with a higher risk of breast, endometrial, prostate and other cancers.

Fat cells produce other hormones, like leptin, that may stimulate cell growth and proliferation. Leptin is more abundant in obese people.

Obese people frequently have higher levels of insulin in their blood, which may promote the development of some tumors.




Obese people often have chronic levels of inflammation, which is associated with increased cancer risk.

Other possible ways obesity may promote cancer includesimmune system disturbance, and increased levels of free radical production and oxidative stress.




The message is clear: reduce obesity to lower your cancer risk by making healthy lifestyle choices. Lifestyle plays a critical role by reducing cancer- promoting 'white-fat' cells, helping to balance hormones and curtailing inflammation.

About 80 per cent of the health benefits you reap from a healthy lifestyle comes from your diet, and the remaining 20 per cent from exercise.




- Avoid sugar, processed grains and other high- carbohydrate foods. Optimise your intake of vegetables and fruit.

- Eat a healthful diet of whole foods, particularly optimal amounts of healthy protein: nuts, soy, beans, peas, protein shakes, fish and organic poultry and eggs.

Have adequate quantities of healthy fat. Good sources include coconuts and coconut oil, avocados, olive oil, butter, nuts, ackee, and fatty, unpolluted fish.

Also, take a high-quality supplement of omega-3 fats such as from fish and krill oil.

Remember, exercise is a very important 20 per cent of the wellness recipe as it acts in tandem with and boosts the benefits derived from a proper diet. The kind of exercise you start off with depends on your fitness level. Start slowly and then increase. Experts report that for fat loss, the duration of your exercise session is not as important as the intensity of it. For maximum benefits, try to include some high-intensity interval training to your exercise programme.

- You may email Dr Vendryes at or listen to An Ounce of Prevention on POWER106FM on Fridays at 9:10 pm. Visit for details on his books and articles.