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Almost 4% of Cancers Worldwide Due to Excess Body Weight

two overweight men talk on their cell phones while walking down a city street

Excess body weight is responsible for an estimated 544,300 cancers, which is about 3.9% of all cancers in the world, according to research by the American Cancer Society, Imperial College London, and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The report uses data from 2012, the latest year information is available. Researchers believe this number will likely rise in years to come given current global obesity trends. The report was published December 12, 2018 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Cancer Society. A companion article appears as the Special Section in Global Cancer Facts & Figures, 4th Edition.

Being overweight or obese, defined as a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more, is linked to cancers of the breast (in women past menopause), colon and rectum, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, and pancreas. There is also evidence that excess weight may contribute to cancers of the gallbladder, liver, ovary, and multiple myeloma.

Worldwide, the percentage of people who are overweight or obese has been increasing since the 1970s. In 2016, about 40% of adults and 18% of children ages 5-19 years were overweight or obese. That amounts to almost 2 billion adults and 340 million children.

Although the increase in weight has occurred in most countries across all population groups, the report says some of the steepest increases are in low- and middle-income countries. The authors attribute the increase to spread of the “Western lifestyle,” consisting of high-calorie processed foods combined with low physical activity levels.

About 1% of cancers in low-income countries are related to weight, compared to 7% or 8% in some high-income Western countries and in Middle Eastern and Northern African countries. In the US, experts say being overweight or obese is responsible for about 8% of all cancers and 7% of all cancer deaths.

Addressing the problem

The World Health Organization says governments, businesses, and organizations should adopt strategies to address unhealthy food and lack of physical activity. They include:

  • Passing laws that ban trans-fats in food
  • Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Subsidizing vegetables and fruits
  • Limiting portion and package sizes
  • Implementing urban design that promotes walking and bicycling

Eat healthy and get active

Learn more about the benefits of good nutrition, regular physical activity, and staying at a healthy weight. Get guidance and tips from the American Cancer Society.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Global Patterns in Excess Body Weight and the Associated Cancer Burden. Published December 12, 2018 in CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. First author Hyuna Sung, PhD, American Cancer Society, Atlanta, Ga.