Weight Loss Surgery Cuts Obese Women's Cancer Risks

One study links obesity with cancer, but another says it's good to carry extra pounds. What gives?

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Every health journalist who's been on the beat for a few years has reported on studies that appear to contradict each other. Vitamins, the cure for no, cause of cancer! Well two new studies about the risks of being overweight are sure to leave women scratching their heads. In one, obese women who had bariatric weight-loss surgery were found to have reduced cancer risks compared to obese women who didn't have the surgery. (Men, for some reason, didn't get the same benefit from the surgery.) In the other study, researchers found that those who were moderately overweight lived longer than normal weight individuals.

Just how much do our doctors really know when it comes to advising us about body weight? I'm beginning to realize that they may not know as much as they think. Certainly, there's no question that being 75 or 100 pounds overweight—aka obese—puts a strain on your heart, drastically increases your chances of developing diabetes, and probably moderately increases your cancer risks.

But what if your doctor tells you to shed 10 or 15 pounds—that you're two or three notches above the "healthy BMI" cut-off of 25? (Calculate your BMI.) Certainly, losing that bit of weight can help your clothes fit better, give you a bit more energy, make your joints ache less. But will it really make you healthier and extend your life? I'm not sure the evidence is clear on that.

Most likely, it depends on the individual. Some folks find their cholesterol and blood sugar levels skyrocket when they gain 10 pounds. Others see no such shift. Women who have breast cancer may be told to keep the extra weight off to lower their level of estrogen since the hormone, which fuels the growth of the most common breast tumors, is produced by fat cells. On the other hand, having those somewhat higher estrogen levels may confer heart protection benefits.

What these studies show, in my opinion, is that moderately overweight women need to talk to their doctors about their own individual health risks to determine whether they need to go all-out to lose those extra pounds. If they have no weight-related health problems, perhaps they may need to focus only on maintaining their weight and not gaining any more. And while normal weight women certainly shouldn't try to gain weight to live longer, they may not want to beat themselves up so much when they experience that 1 to 2 pound a year weight gain. In the long run, it may not have that much impact on their health.