Are you wanting to lose a few pounds…or maybe a lot of pounds? If so, you’re definitely not alone. More than ⅔ of Americans (and more than 50% of adults globally) are either overweight or obese; many of whom are actively trying to lose weight.
We’ve all been told that being overweight or obese will increase the risk for cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) overweight & obesity is associated with an increased risk of 14 different cancers and these cancers make up ~40% of all cancers diagnosed in the US each year. They include:
- Adenocarcinoma of the esophagus
- Breast (in women who have gone through menopause)
- Colon and rectum
- Upper stomach
- Meningioma (a type of brain cancer)
- Multiple myeloma
How Obesity Causes Cancer
Now although we’ve known the link between overweight, obesity, and cancer for some time, WHY it increases cancer risk hasn’t been as well defined. I’m going to attempt to tackle this question by linking it to 3 likely correlations.
Let me explain…
Visceral fat cells tend to be low in oxygen. That oxygen poor environment creates inflammation. As inflammation rises in the body several things happen.
- One is that immune cells produce highly reactive molecules in response to the inflammation and those molecules can damage DNA.
- Second, inflammation stimulates cells to divide; which can lead to an increase in cell mutations.
- Third, inflammation triggers the pancreas to pump out more insulin. High levels of circulating insulin can further stimulate cells to divide, including cancer cells.
- And yet another problem is that fat cells make estrogen; which increases circulating levels of estrogen (whether you’re a woman or a man) and that estrogen also stimulates cells to divide.
That’s a lot of cellular division happening!! There’s also the issue that for some people overweight & obesity were caused by a lack of physical activity and a nutrient poor diet…both of which can further increase the risk for cancer. Although admittedly not very linear, you can see all the possible ways carrying extra fat on your body can increase the likelihood of cancer developing and growing.
Post-Treatment Weight Gain
Now what can be exceptionally frustrating is that cancer treatment sometimes causes weight gain. I’ve had many clients come to me post-treatment with newly developed weight gain from steroids, chemotherapy, or hormonal treatments. So we know being overweight or obese increases risk for cancer but we also know that going through cancer treatment can sometimes cause unintentional weight gain; which certainly isn’t helping the long-term recurrence prevention plan.
5 Steps For Long Lasting Weight Loss
It’s rare that weight loss is simply as easy as saying “I want to lose weight”. Oftentimes despite your best efforts of eating less and exercising more the weight doesn’t budge. Can you relate to that? Throughout my career as a Dietitian I’ve seen hundreds of people struggle with this exact issue. And the hard truth is that “fad diets” are not going to work long-term. Yes, they might help you get the weight off initially but it’s rare that they’re able to keep the weight off for very long. So what to do instead?
I believe there are 5 basic steps for long-lasting healthy weight loss. These are the principles I personally practice and the ones I teach to my clients.
Step 1. Focus First On Whole Foods
I know I’ve spoken at length on the importance of eating real foods and cutting out ultra-processed foods but it really is the first step that must be taken on your quest to a healthy weight…for so many different reasons, including lowering cancer risk and boosting the immune system. But in terms of weight loss, whole foods are more filling and less caloric. They provide you with a variety of nutrients your body needs to optimize metabolism.
Satiety, or feelings of fullness and satisfaction after eating, are a big reason why whole foods help us stay at a healthy weight better than high-caloric, “junk” foods. Consider the results of this study that showed you’d have to eat about 7 small croissants to experience the same “fullness” you’d get from a single medium potato. That’s a difference of about 1000 calories!
In addition to choosing whole foods, it’s also important that these foods are balanced with protein, fiber, and fat at every meal. This combination of foods will help you feel full quicker and longer, thus helping you naturally eat less and not turn to snacks as often.
Step 2. Hydrate, Don’t Snack
Speaking of snacks…I am not a fan! Okay, I said it. Not a very popular opinion I know…especially not with the million(+) dollar a year snack industry but I really think that snacking gets in the way of weight loss. Even those healthy, whole grain, seeded options. And the truth is, if you’re eating a balanced meal full of real, whole foods, this should be able to keep you satisfied for at last 4 to 5 hours.
So, the question then is why are you hungry 2 hours later? Is it possible you’re bored or stressed? Is it possible you’re dehydrated? Our thirst cues can often be confused with hunger cues.
My suggestion is to focus on hydration instead between meals. Fill a mug with tea and keep it on your desk. Fill a large pitcher with filtered water, fresh citrus slices, & mint and then keep a large glass of it with you. See if focusing on hydration can help curb the desire to snack until it’s time for your next meal.
Need more ideas of hydrating beverages…other than water? Head here: https://www.therusticdietitian.com/blog/cooling-summer-beverages/.
Step 3. Narrow The Eating Window
To be fair I could have also called this step, “Be Comfortable With Hunger”. This step is a critical yet often overlooked piece to the puzzle. Not only do we have access to endless amounts of food (much of it not very healthy) but it’s available at any time of the day. This is a really big problem.
Humans evolved in a landscape of feast and famine. Our ancestors experienced persistent hunger and were not eating food around the clock. I would argue that our physiology is better suited for periods of fasting rather than 6 small meals a day. And yet, how many of you practice fasting? When was the last time you felt true hunger…AND didn’t act on it right away?!
I have several articles on my website about the array of health benefits from fasting, especially as it relates to cancer protection and immune support, if you’d like to read more. But what we also know is that periods of fasting can be incredibly effective at helping with weight loss, improving metabolic markers (like glucose & cholesterol), and helping you stay at a healthy weight.
Most scientists agree that we fully metabolize our last meal after 12-16 hours, depending on how much we ate. At this point your body begins to burn stored tissues for energy; like fat cells plus dead and damaged cells (a very important process in cancer protection known as autophagy). However this process is not going to happen if we follow the typical American eating pattern of 15-hours each day…leaving only 9 hours for fasting.
Make it a goal to get a minimum of 12-hours of fasting every night. When that feels easy to do, then gradually increase that length to 13, 14, 15, or even 16…ideally making more of those hours be in the evening rather than the morning. This means eating dinner earlier and putting away those evening snacks. This will match your circadian rhythm best and lead to much better results in both weight loss and metabolic markers.
You can read more about how to get started with fasting here: https://www.therusticdietitian.com/blog/fasting-the-best-tool-to-improving-health/
Step 4. Move More Every Day
Continuing on this idea of what our physiology has “evolved” to do…our bodies were meant to move! And not just for 30 minutes at the gym, 5 days a week; although this is what’s recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine. Our ancestors didn’t “work out” because nearly all of their waking hours were spent doing things that today we would call “exercise”.
They were walking & running long distances, carrying heavy loads (like tools, food, babies, water jugs, weapons, etc). They were hunting & digging for food or climbing trees for fruit and honey. And they sat in a squatted position or just straight on the ground; which activated many more muscles than our ergonomic desk chairs.
They were constantly using their bodies and even our more recent ancestors, like my great-grandparents for example, were often farmers or working the land or had more physically demanding jobs. Most of us today simply do not use our bodies enough.
And although it doesn’t necessarily need to look like our ancestors we definitely need to move more. Yes, starting with 30 minutes a day is a great goal but once you’re there don’t stop. How can you add in more movement over the day and better yet more varied movement.
Here are some ideas to play around with:
- Alternating between standing at your desk and sitting on a stool (or even a yoga ball)…something that keeps your core engaged.
- Taking a walk after each meal and adding in some light calisthenics…jumping jacks, squats, push-ups, lunges, etc.
- Cleaning your house & car, doing chores around the house & garden…lifting, carrying, pushing, pulling…using your body in lots of different ways.
- Plus at least one strenuous thing each day…something that really gets your heart rate up; like hiking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, dancing, boxing, etc. Recently a client shared with me another strategy that she’s been enjoying. Something that has caused her weight to “melt away”. It’s called rucking and it involves carrying a weighted backpack while you walk. It elevates what might otherwise be a mellow walk into a strenuous activity. You can learn more about it here if you’re interested.
Not only will increasing your activity help you lose weight (& maintain it) it will also help you fight off cancer. Studies have shown that exercise can help you tolerate treatment better, even more aggressive treatments, and enhance cancer recovery. It can reduce the risk of recurrence and help prevent metastases. And according to the Annals of Oncology, the most fit people face a 45% lower risk of dying from cancer!
You can read more about the connection between exercise and cancer here: https://www.therusticdietitian.com/blog/exercise-an-important-pillar-in-your-healing-plan/
Step 5. Sleep Well & Stress Less
The final step is to consider how your sleep and stress levels could be impacting your weight loss efforts. Although not as obviously tied to weight management, they both play incredibly important roles.
Some studies suggest that even just dropping your sleep below 7 hours a night could cause you to gain weight…in addition to other health impacts like a depressed mood, increased inflammation, and suppressed immunity.
There are many factors that influence our sleep. Everything from melatonin levels to electronic use to when we’re eating dinner. If you’re struggling to get at least 7 hours of deep, restful sleep each night, then I suggest heading here to learn some strategies of how to improve this: https://www.therusticdietitian.com/blog/4-steps-to-better-sleep/
And chronic stress isn’t much better. Our bodies were meant to handle periods of stress. Stress is a normal part of life. However our modern day stressors are nothing like the acute stressors our ancestors faced. For many people high stress is just a normal part of their life, not the exception. And living with chronically elevated stress causes changes in your hormonal balance and metabolism. Changes that can lead to overweight & obesity and make it much harder for you to lose weight.
I know you can’t just change your situation overnight in order to drop your stress level BUT you can change how you react and respond to stress. And even that shift can make a really big difference in your ability to lose weight.
I suggest starting with Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 Breath; 4 rounds first thing in the morning and another 4 right before bed. And then head here to learn more strategies to help you better manage your stress: https://www.therusticdietitian.com/blog/living-mindfully-with-stress/
Track Your Intake
Now if you can honestly say that you are doing ALL of the above consistently and you’ve been doing it for awhile because frankly it takes time to start seeing benefits. And your weight still hasn’t shifted…not even a bit…then you could consider tracking your food intake.
This is not my immediate go-to because I really don’t find it necessary for most people. When you eat with intention and mindfulness and are really tuned into what your body needs, it is much easier to self-regulate how much you eat.
However there are occasions when we might need some self-reflection. Something that can give us the data to help us make better choices. That is where tracking comes in. Keeping track of everything you eat, even for just one week, can be incredibly helpful at shedding light on where you may be eating more than you thought or if there are any imbalances in how much protein, fat, or carb you’re eating. The trick of course is you need to document everything you’re eating & drinking and you need to be as precise as possible….which means measuring & including all ingredients. Simply estimating or guessing is not going to give you the most helpful data.
This Is Not A Quick Fix
Weight loss feels like a monumental task, I know…especially if you have a lot to lose. But it doesn’t have to be. As long as you view it as a long-term health strategy rather than a quick fix. As I shared with one of my clients recently, month to month may not feel as dramatic as you’d like, but imagine where you could be 1-year from today if you stick with this?! Or even a year after that? How awesome if you could be at your healthiest, most vibrant weight yet…AND it’s sticking! You’re not just slipping back to the old weight. Pretty great, right?
You CAN do this! But you have to be willing to make changes that you can continue for the rest of your life. This is not a 12-week diet plan. This is a true lifestyle choice. But the freedom with this means you also don’t have to commit to a crazy, restrictive diet. You can still eat a variety of delicious whole foods in balanced combinations. And believe it or not, the occasional treat will not completely derail your efforts. 😉