Fewer Americans trying to lose weight; what that means for cancer prevention

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According to a recent study, fewer US adults with overweight or obesity are trying to lose weight in what is a concerning trend for cancer prevention. With obesity rates increasing and fewer at a healthy weight, more people will be at risk for several cancers such as post menopausal breast and colorectal, as well as other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes.

In their analysis, researchers used data from NHANES (National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey) from 1988 through 2014 to compare weight loss efforts over the past couple of decades. They found that the percent of Americans with overweight trying to lose weight dropped from 56% to 49% in the past 25 years. This drop occurred in nearly all gender and ethnic categories, but perhaps the most concerning decline was for black women. Almost 8 in 10 black women have overweight or obesity, but those trying to lose weight went from 65.5% to almost 55%. White women and men also showed drops in weight loss efforts.

For cancer prevention, maintaining a healthy weight throughout life is one of the most powerful lifestyle factors for lower risk. In those who already have overweight or obesity, we don’t know if losing weight will lower risk, though it seems to make sense. But we do know that losing weight will reduce risk of type 2 diabetes, a risk factor for some cancers, and it can reduce chronic inflammation and other markers for cancer risk.

People giving up on trying to lose weight is concerning, but not especially surprising to me. For over  20 years I worked with individuals, mostly women wanting to lose weight. Even in the best of circumstances, weight loss – and keeping it off – is tough. Not just because making lifestyle changes can be hard, but our food environment pushes us towards large portions of high calorie, unhealthy food, and opportunities for naturally incorporating activity into our days are few. And our medical system is poorly equipped to help people achieve and keep off meaningful weight loss.

So, if you’re one of the many who have tried to lose weight, possibly multiple times, and feel like you did not succeed, what can you do?

Rather than focus on weight loss, try taking some steps this week to move toward better overall health and lowering your risk for chronic disease. Here are some examples:

  1. Make one simple change in your diet this week. For example: reduce sugary drinks by whatever amount you can – 1/2 can less per day, or try one day without; substitute one piece of fruit for a high calorie treat 3 times; take a healthy lunch to work one day.
  2. Move more 3 times this week: take a 10-15 minute walk or take ten 1-minute activity breaks while watching TV.
  3. Find a friend who will support you in making changes.
  4. Try AICR’s healthy recipes. Find a few cancer-fighting favorites that fit your taste, schedule and lifestyle. Cooking at home allows you to personalize recipes to meet you and your family’s needs.

As you make small, doable changes, you can build on them to move toward a healthier life without focusing only on weight loss.



    Author: Alice RD

    Alice G. Bender, MS, RDN, is the Director of Nutrition Programs at AICR. She helps put the science of cancer prevention by providing tips and tools to choose nutritious and delicious foods. Alice has guided thousands of individuals to healthier lives through diet changes and choices.

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