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Super Sizing Not a Super Idea

Focused on Health - December 2008

By Rachel Winters

In a world where “super sizing” is a part of mealtime for many American families, maintaining a healthy weight can be a challenge, especially during the holiday season. Being overweight is not only a threat to your health but also can put you at greater risk for developing several types of cancers.

To reduce your cancer risks, the American Institute of Cancer Research recently recommended that most people should aim to have a body mass index (BMI) between 21 and 23, even though a BMI between 18.5 and 24.9 conventionally has been regarded as normal or healthy. This new normal range is based on recommendations previously issued by the World Health Organization.

Science shows that genetics and family history do play a role in obesity, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, although research is still being done to understand exactly how. Genes do not, however, predict future health, and both genes and behavior may be needed for a person to be overweight. For example, someone with genes that make them susceptible to obesity may increase their chances of actually becoming obese by eating too much or not getting enough exercise.

Maintaining Healthy BMI Could Cut Cancer Risk

According to the American Institute of Cancer Research, a person should be as lean as possible while staying in the normal range of body weight to reduce their risks for developing cancer and other diseases. Recent research shows that being overweight or obese raises a person’s risk for esophageal, pancreatic, colorectal, breast (in post-menopausal women), endometrial and kidney cancers.

The American Institute of Cancer Research offers the following guidelines for staying in a healthy weight range from childhood through adulthood:

  • Keep your body weight at the lower end of the BMI range during childhood and adolescence, up to age 21
  • Maintain body weight within the normal range from age 21
  • Avoid weight gain and increases in waist circumference throughout adulthood

One Size Does Not Fit All

Because the relationship between BMI and risk for disease varies among different populations, the ideal BMI that will give a person the lowest risk for developing disease also varies. 

BMI is a tool used for measuring a person’s weight in relation to height. For example, a woman who is 5’5” and weighs 135 pounds has a BMI of 22.5, which is in the normal range. However, a woman who is 5’5” and weighs 150 pounds has a BMI of 25, putting her in the overweight category. Click here to calculate your BMI.

“It’s important to consult your health care provider to determine a BMI that’s right for your particular body type,” says Sally Scroggs, M.S., registered dietician and health education manager at M. D. Anderson. “When calculating your BMI, be sure to interpret the results with caution, because in some cases the number can be misleading.”

For example, at equal BMIs, many Asian populations have a higher body fat content, whereas Pacific Islanders have more lean tissue and less fat.

Additionally, unusually lean, muscular people such as manual workers and some athletes have relatively high BMIs, even though they have relatively little body fat. Due to variations such as this, your calculated BMI may not necessarily put you in the “normal” range.

Incorporating a Healthy Lifestyle

According to Scroggs, there are several things you can do in your everyday life to stay in the healthy BMI range. For example:

  • Eat smaller portions by leaving a few bites on your plate
  • Decrease the amount of calories in your diet
  • Engage in at least 30 minutes (40-60 preferred) of vigorous physical activity at least five days a week
  • Consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables

“Being mindful of the foods you put in your body and exercise should be a priority,” Scroggs says. “Making small changes in your lifestyle can help you maintain an ideal weight and reduce your risks for developing cancer later in life.”

Holiday Eating Tips

A traditional holiday meal can contain as many as 2,253 calories and 115 grams of fat. Healthy eating tips from Scroggs to help modify your caloric intake and reduce your cancer risks during the holidays include:

  • Plan ahead for parties by starting with a manageable number of holiday activities, ending with a healthy diet on party days, maintaining self control when faced with buffet tables and, if you drink alcohol, setting a limit
  • Entertain wisely by providing healthy choices along with old favorites and making lower fat versions of favorite dishes
  • Take healthy snacks when shopping and prepare nutritious foods in advance
  • Set aside time each day to exercise, as 45 minutes or more has shown to help prevent breast and colorectal cancers, and can help offset extra calories consumed during holiday festivities

“The holiday season is only once a year, and if you want to enjoy your favorites, you can,” Scroggs says. “Enjoying a traditional holiday meal or party doesn’t need to destroy the healthy food habits you’ve nurtured all year long.”

This holiday season, remember that making healthy choices can help the entire family reduce their cancer risks. Try to spend quality time with your family doing things that don’t involve eating, such as ice skating, bowling, making festive decorations or playing board games.

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© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center