Kevin McLaughlin Photo by Vera LaMarche

My father, who was as thin as a fence post and rarely overindulged in food, would sometimes say, “I eat to live; I don’t live to eat.” The statement would often elicit a dagger stare from my mother, who loved good food and struggled to control her weight.

Today, with the easy availability of plentiful, inexpensive and often unhealthy food, many of us work hard to avoid packing on the pounds. But our vigilance can waver, as seen in the growing numbers of obese American adults and children. In 1980, only one in seven Americans were obese, defined as having a body mass index, or BMI, of 30 or higher. Today, one in three are obese.

While a majority of people are aware of the increased risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes that comes with being obese, fewer than half of all Americans understand that extra weight also increases their risk for certain types of cancer. And obesity has been linked to a higher risk for cancer recurrence.

In this issue of Cancer Today, contributing writer Melissa Weber describes the connection between obesity and cancer, and also points to the complications that can arise when obese patients are treated for cancer. For example, some doctors may give their obese patients smaller doses of chemotherapy than recommended for their weight, fearing that larger doses would be too toxic, but that decision could reduce the treatment’s effectiveness. Such “dose capping” was eliminated at many institutions after the American Society of Clinical Oncology released guidelines in 2012 that warned against the practice and advised oncologists to use body weight to calculate chemo doses.

Walter Willett, an epidemiologist who has led efforts to persuade Americans to eat healthier foods, says that “avoiding that pound or two creep-up every year is one of the most important things we can do, in addition to not smoking, to reduce cancer risk.” The American Cancer Society (ACS) offers simple guidelines for controlling your weight. These include eating at least 2½ cups of vegetables and fruits a day, limiting processed and red meats, and replacing refined grain products with whole grains. For exercise the ACS recommends at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity, such as jogging or fast cycling.

This is sensible advice to help reduce your risk for cancer or a cancer recurrence. And for cancer survivors, these simple steps can carry added benefits, among them less fatigue, improved body image, higher physical functioning and reduced depression.

Last year the American Medical Association recognized obesity as a disease. Some would call it an epidemic. By eating reasonable amounts of healthy foods, staying active and controlling our weight, we can do our part to stem the tide of obesity. Let’s give eating to live a new kind of meaning.