May 18, 2024

Millennials Getting Obesity-Related Cancer Faster than Boomers

Author: The Great Courses Staff
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By The Great Courses Staff

Millennials in America contract obesity-related cancers at higher rates than previous generations. The obesity epidemic affects these trends, as does early contact with carcinogens. How can we put ourselves back on the right track?

Doctor measuring waist of young female patient.

New research suggests that millennials are more likely to suffer from several obesity-related cancers than Boomers and Gen X-ers. For example, gallbladder, kidney, and pancreatic cancers occur more often in younger generations, according to data provided by the North American Association of Central Cancer Registries. These and other cancers occur most often in people who are overweight. Early exposure to various carcinogens also plays a part in the prominence of these illnesses. No guaranteed cure for cancer exists, but we can take steps to help prevent many forms of cancer.

Lifestyle Habits that Minimize Cancer Risk

“Currently, cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the United States, and the most feared diagnosis,” said Professor Roberta H. Anding, M.S., Director of Sports Nutrition at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. Professor Anding is a breast cancer survivor as well as a licensed dietitian. “Although heart disease is the number-one killer of all Americans, the diagnosis of cancer for me and many Americans is terrifying.”

Regarding millennials, the uptick in weight-related cancers may be linked to the sedentary lifestyles of the digital age. So which lifestyle changes does Professor Anding recommend? “Both tobacco and alcohol are thought to initiate and promote cancer development,” she said. “Additionally, the American Cancer Society suggests that 1 million skin cancers could be prevented by eliminating sun exposure. This is a double-edged sword because we know that sun exposure is a great source of vitamin D, so by eliminating sun exposure, you also eliminate one of your major sources of vitamin D.”

Regular exercise also helps. In addition to keeping us in shape, exercise positively affects our bodies’ insulin levels. Insulin is a hormone that helps us process glucose in the body. When a body stays at rest too long, it builds a resistance to insulin. In turn, a resistance to insulin weakens our cells’ abilities to move glucose, which leads to obesity. “What you’re doing is promoting cancer development when you don’t exercise,” Professor Anding said.

Eating Right to Prevent Cancer

Doctors always recommend maintaining a healthy diet. Eating well gives us more energy, accelerates weight loss, and prevents many illnesses, including diabetes and heart disease. Health-conscious foods can also lower our risk of many types of cancer.

“A plant-based diet means the more of your plate that is occupied by vegetables, the better,” Professor Anding said. “One way that you might want to think about this is thinking about having a ‘Meatless Monday,’ where your main dish on Monday night might be vegetarian.” Meatless Monday is a phrase invented by nutritionists at the prominent Johns Hopkins University. Sudden high temperatures burn high-protein foods. Therefore, blackened and charred meats have the highest cancer risks.

Conversely, white and green vegetables—or “indoles”—prove to be the healthiest. “These are also known as ‘cruciferous vegetables,’ so things like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale,” Professor Anding said. Indoles “reduce the production of one of the stages of cell division in the cancer process.” Professor Anding also recommends finding creative ways to introduce unpopular vegetables into your diet where needed. Cooking a chickpea curry with turmeric, for example, offers a double dose of cancer-fighting foods in one meal.

Different foods are more effective at preventing and fighting different kinds of cancer. When combined with exercise and a proper limitation of sun exposure and alcohol, we can reduce our chances of getting many types of cancer. Consult a physician with questions about starting a healthy regimen.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University. 

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