Obesity linked to nearly 500,000 new cancers worldwide

In collaboration with the Press Association

Excess bodyweight is behind almost half a million new cancer cases in adults each year.

"It’s important to encourage healthy lifestyles if we want to protect the health of future generations" - Tom Stansfeld, Cancer Research UK

New estimates published in The Lancet Oncology reveal that expanding waistlines accounted for 481,000 new cancers worldwide in 2012 – with the vast majority of cases in developed countries.

Dr Melina Arnold and her colleagues from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) in France found that almost two in every three of these obesity-related cancers (64 per cent) were diagnosed in North America and Europe.

They warn that the future burden of cancer could swell if nothing is done to curb the growing problem of obesity.

The figures came from a number of international collections spanning 184 countries, including the agency’s own GLOBOCAN database.

The results showed that just over four in every 100 cases of cancer in men (4.4 per cent) were linked to a high BMI, said Tom Stansfeld, a health information officer at Cancer Research UK.

But for UK women the figure was almost double, with just over eight in every 100 cancer cases (8.2 per cent) being linked with a high BMI.

“This means that more than 7,000 cancer cases in men and 13,000 cases in women are linked to excess bodyweight each year in the UK,” he said.

The gender difference seen in the UK figures was mirrored across the globe, which the researchers believe is largely due to endometrial and post-menopausal breast cancers.

Obesity is linked to a host of other cancers, including bowel, oesophageal, a type of stomach cancer, pancreatic, kidney and gallbladder cancer. The increased risk is largely due to the body’s fat tissues producing extra hormones and growth factors which then affect the way cells work.

North America topped the global league table for obesity-related cancers with 111,000 cancers – equivalent to 23 in every 100 new obesity-related cancers globally – while sub-Saharan Africa contributed the least with 7,300.

Eastern Europe, meanwhile, accounted for over a third – 66,000 – of the total European cases linked to a high BMI.

Dr Arnold, said that the figures reinforced the need to address the challenge of obesity.

“Our findings add support for a global effort to address the rising trends in obesity. The global prevalence of obesity in adults has doubled since 1980,” she said.

Stansfeld agreed, saying the figures highlighted the importance of tackling obesity and how such action could save lives.

“While losing weight is never easy, making lasting changes that you can maintain in the long term is the most effective way to keep a healthy weight,” he said.

“More than four in 10 cancers in the UK can be prevented through lifestyle changes like not smoking, drinking less alcohol, keeping a healthy weight and exercising regularly, and enjoying a diet that is high in fruit and veg and low in red and processed meat and salt.

“It’s important to encourage healthy lifestyles if we want to protect the health of future generations, as well as taking bolder action to make it easier for people to opt for healthier choices rather than junk food.”

World image by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


  • Arnold, M., et al. (2014). Global burden of cancer attributable to high body-mass index in 2012: a population-based study The Lancet Oncology DOI: 10.1016/S1470-2045(14)71123-4