Preventing Endometrial Cancer: Lose Weight, Get Active

Roxanne Nelson

September 12, 2013

Preventing endometrial cancer might be easier than previously believed. According to a new report, 3 of 5 new cases of endometrial cancer in the United States can be prevented if women maintain a healthy weight and are physically active.

The researchers estimate that 59% of the cases of endometrial cancer (about 29,500 annually) could be prevented if women engaged in physical activity for at least 30 minutes per day and maintained a healthy body weight, with a body mass index (BMI) from 18.5 to 25.0 kg/m².

The Endometrial Cancer 2013 Report, which was published by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) and World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF), also notes that coffee consumption reduces the risk.

Increasing evidence has suggested a link between cancer risk and physical activity and body weight. Physical activity and a healthy body weight have been associated with a reduced risk for a number of cancers, including breast, prostate, and colon, as previously reported by Medscape Medical News.

But in the case of endometrial cancer, the relation is quite striking, said Alice Bender, RD, MS, nutrition communications manager at AICR. "A very significant number of cases can be prevented by making changes in diet and lifestyle."

Currently, 7 of 10 American women are overweight or obese, and more than half do not get enough exercise to protect themselves against endometrial cancer, according to the AICR.

The researchers also found that a high glycemic load "is probable cause of endometrial cancer." In other words, a diet rich in sugar-laden drinks and processed foods high in carbohydrates boosted the risk of developing the disease.

We haven't seen this before — that a high glycemic diet increases the risk for endometrial cancer, Bender told Medscape Medical News. "While we don't want people to focus on the glycemic index, we do want to make them aware that diets that contain a lot of processed foods and sugary drinks can make a difference in the metabolic environment."

Coffee consumption is also associated with a reduced risk for endometrial cancer. Although too much caffeine can affect sleep quality and have other detrimental effects, this study shows that moderate amounts of coffee can be part of a healthy diet, Bender pointed out. "And drinking decaffeinated coffee was also protective."

Updated Results

The review evaluated all the scientific research available on endometrial cancer, diet, physical activity, and body weight since the first global review was conducted in 2007. An international panel of experts judged the evidence, and scientists at the AICR/WCRF estimated that about 59% of cases in the United States could be prevented with physical activity and a healthy body weight.

The preventability figures are a conservative estimate, "based on what would happen if all women in the United States had a BMI between 18.5 and 25.0 kg/m² and were physically active for at least 30 minutes a day, 7 days a week," Bender explained.

Many Unaware of Link

The link between obesity and endometrial cancer was the most consistent and strongest found in the nutrition and cancer literature that was used for this report.

Bender pointed out that despite the increasing number of studies linking lifestyle and weight to cancer risk and the subsequent media coverage, many people are still unaware of the connection. "We have done surveys," she said, "and while many people are aware that being overweight increases the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, about half do not see it as a risk factor for cancer. There is still a fair number who aren't convinced and who haven't seen that information."

For someone who is sedentary and overweight, change can be a daunting task. "It can be very difficult to lose weight, and overwhelming for some," Bender acknowledged. "People should begin wherever you are right now. If you are overweight, start by just maintaining that weight. Don't let it go up."

Weight loss should be viewed as a long-term effort, not something that needs to be done immediately. "People should begin by making some changes and gradually transition to a lifestyle that helps them lose that weight."

The same goes for physical activity. "Many think they need to set aside a long stretch of time for working out or that they need to join a gym; as a result, they don't do anything," she said. "Physical activity is another hard component, but this report did find that activity of all types is important, not just recreational but occupational."

In other words, physical activity can be done in short bursts of time, even during the work day. "You can go for a 15-minute walk, get up from your desk periodically, take the stairs instead of the elevator," Bender said. "It is possible to work physical activity into daily life, even if you have a sedentary job."

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