Health Matters 7/10: Understanding Role of Weight and Nutrition in Cancer


Share post:

By Mehreen Husain, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O.

Did you know that, according to the American Cancer Society, excess body weight is thought to be responsible for about 11% of cancers in women and about 5% of cancers in men?

- Advertisement -

Moreover, researchers believe that extra weight may also increase the risk for cancer reoccurrence.

That is why establishing a healthy diet and building physical activity into your regular routine are especially important while undergoing care for cancer and following treatment.

The Edward & Marie Matthews Center for Cancer Care at Penn Medicine Princeton Health offers an interactive nutrition class specifically designed to help those with cancer and survivors of the disease learn how nutrition and lifestyle play a role in the disease and its prevention.

Cancer Risk Rises With Weight

Two out of every three adults in the United States are overweight or obese, according to the National Institutes of Health, and studies show that higher amounts of body fat are associated with increased risk for a number of cancers, including breast, colon, rectal, endometrial, esophageal, gallbladder, kidney, liver, ovarian, pancreatic, stomach and thyroid cancers; multiple myeloma; and meningioma (a tumor of the lining of the brain and spinal cord).

While research is ongoing, doctors believe excess body fat may increase cancer risk in a number of ways. 

According to the National Cancer Institute, people with obesity often have chronic, low-level inflammation, which can, over time, cause DNA damage that leads to cancer.

In addition, fat tissue produces excess amounts of estrogen, high levels of which have been associated with increased risks for breast, endometrial, ovarian, and some other cancers.

People with obesity also often have increased blood levels of insulin and insulin-like growth factor that may promote the development of colon, kidney, prostate and endometrial cancers.

What’s more, scientific evidence suggests that obesity may worsen several aspects of cancer survivorship, including quality of life, cancer recurrence, cancer progression and prognosis.

Tips for Weight Management

Nutrition and weight management play an important role in preventing cancer, and also in cancer treatment and survivorship. While most people do not gain weight during treatment, some do.

Certain types of therapy and medicines can cause weight gain, and some types of treatment can increase appetite, causing you to consume more calories than your body needs. At the same time, cancer treatment can cause fatigue and lead you to skip exercise because you’re too tired.

Whether you are concerned about your risk for cancer, are currently undergoing treatment or are a cancer survivor, these basic tips can help you manage your weight, wherever you are in your journey.

• Increase fruit, vegetable, and whole grain consumption. Fruits and vegetables are high in fiber and will help you feel full longer. They’re also filled with antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help decrease inflammation and increase the self-destructive nature of cancer cells. Research has shown that plant-based diets can lower cancer risk.
• Minimize consumption of processed foods. A good rule of thumb is to avoid packaged foods with long lists of ingredients that you don’t recognize and can’t pronounce. Eat real food that comes directly from nature.
• Decrease added sugar in your diet. Sugar is one of the main culprits of weight gain and increased insulin levels. Additionally, research on mice has shown that cancer cells feed on sugar. Limit your sugar intake, and if you must have something sweet every now and then, choose a treat with high-quality, fresh ingredients.
• Incorporate daily physical activity. Exercise of any kind can help manage weight, and though it may seem counterintuitive, exercise can help fight the fatigue often associated with cancer treatment. For patients who are able to tolerate physical activity and have clearance from their physician, the American Cancer Society recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activities each week.
• Limit or eliminate alcohol consumption. Alcohol is loaded with calories that can lead to weight gain. Not to mention that drinking alcohol has been shown to increase the risk for certain cancers, including breast cancers. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans, created by the US Department of Health & Human Services, recommends that if you drink alcohol at all, drink in moderation—no more than one drink a day for women, and no more than two drinks a day for men.

For more information about nutrition classes at the Edward & Marie Matthews Center for Cancer Care or to find a primary care physician affiliated with Penn Medicine Princeton Health, call 1-888-742-7496 or visit

Mehreen Husain, M.S., R.D.N., C.S.O., is a registered dietitian and board certified specialist in oncology nutrition with Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center.

Stay Connected


Current Issue

Latest News

Related articles

Eating on the Spectrum

By Kristyn Pecsi, MD Research suggests that 20% to 35% of people with anorexia nervosa also have autism spectrum...

Anti-Reflux Procedure Offers Long-term Relief

By Monica Saumoy, MD Have antacids and other medications to help control gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) failed to bring...

Preventing Hair Loss, Fatigue and Other Side Effects of Chemotherapy

By Karen Bonfanti Davison, RN, BSN, OCN Chemotherapy is a mainstay in the treatment of cancer and may be...

Protecting Against Complications of Treatment for Prostate Cancer

By Edward M. Soffen, MD Aside from skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer among men...