When it comes to our health fears, breast cancer tops the list. Many women have sworn off menopausal hormone therapy, since it was found to increase breast cancer risks in a large clinical trial. Others have decided to forgo their daily glass of wine, willing to trade its heart-protective benefits for a little extra shielding from the disease that scares us most. Some of us no longer drink from plastic bottles to avoid bisphenol A, an estrogen-like chemical that some environmentalists blame for rising rates of breast cancer. Yet, one of the single biggest risk factors for breast cancer—steady weight gain over the decades—is something many women make little effort to avoid.
A study presented at yesterday's American Association of Cancer Research meeting gave one more reason to try. It found that women who gained about a pound a year after age 20 had nearly double the risk of postmenopausal breast cancer. Study coauthor Regina Ziegler, an epidemiologist at NCI, told me she thinks weight gain should be considered as great a risk factor for breast cancer as the other biggies, like hormone therapy, family history, or late motherhood. It's probably more important than the amount of dietary fat you consume, or the number of fruits and vegetables you eat—though by all means, you should continue good nutrition habits for their other health benefits.
Most of us know, though, that keeping our weight steady as we age is not easy. Nearly 60 percent of the women in the new study started off at a healthy weight at age 20, but gained 30 pounds by the time they reached menopause. Another 10 percent were already overweight by age 20. Clearly, it takes a lot of effort to keep squeezing into those jeans we wore in college. But it's not impossible. Metabolism expert Jana Klauer, a New York City physician and nutritionist specializing in obesity treatment, recommends the following 7 ways to avoid the gain.