Breast Cancer and Obesity – It’s About More than Weight

breast cancer and obesity

A recent article on breast cancer and obesity caught my eye. While over a year old, the article “Breast cancer risk in metabolically healthy but overweight postmenopausal women” from the journal Cancer Research adds to the pile of data connecting obesity with breast cancer (access the full article here). With obesity comes excess adipose tissue that can produce sex hormones that stimulate breast cancer growth. Fat tissue also causes a hefty amount of inflammation, which serves as fertilizer throughout the body for cancer growth. The picture below nicely illustrates this (though it is of a man as it is from an article I wrote on prostate cancer, the point is the same).:

prostate cancer

Breast Cancer and Obesity… and Metabolic Health

However, the third and often overlooked detrimental effect of excess adipose tissue is the metabolic derangement that it can produce. Elevated levels of blood glucose and insulin can accompany excess adipose tissue. However, in this article, Gunter and his group assessed over 68,000 women for both obesity and metabolic health and their risk of breast cancer. They found that breast cancer risk was high in metabolically unhealthy women (defined as those with insulin resistance or elevated levels of insulin while fasting) regardless of whether they were obese or of normal weight. Metabolically healthy woman appeared to see breast cancer less often regardless of their weight. In other words, metabolic health was more important than overall weight.

This data further substantiates the issues with staring at the scale to assess our health. Metabolic health has a lot more to do with the type of foods we put in our mouths as opposed to the amount of food we consume. The calorie-counting scale obsessed “calories-in, calories-out” crowd needs to refocus their sites on a new target – metabolic health.

What can we take away from this? Let’s aim to avoid obesity by maintaining an optimal weight, but let’s also aim for metabolic health by keeping our consumption of sugar and simple carbohydrates low and instead aim for healthy vegetable, leafy greens, and berries.


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  1. Zig Euner

    What about subcutaneous fat? What if someone has little visceral adiposity but it’s almost entirely subcutaneous? Even more, what about if it’s in the upper arms, pannus, and “female fat zones”–meaning breasts, hips, buttocks, and thighs? I never read anyone writing about subcutaneous fat.

    1. cavemandoctor (Post author)

      Great question and this is certainly something not looked at as extensively as it should be. The issues with adipose tissue generally point to central obesity as bring the main issue. Some fat is normal, especially for women. The key is excess fat, though at times that even seems hard to define.

      I would say excess central obesity > general excess obesity > no obesity

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