Maintaining a healthy weight throughout your life can reduce your risk of developing breast cancer after the menopause.

Tuesday 17 January 2017      Health information blog
Scales, tape measure and apples

Eating a balanced diet can help you maintain a healthy weight

It’s that time again for New Year’s resolutions, and for many of us that means watching our weight. Being overweight is associated with a range of health problems including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and arthritis. But did you know that by keeping your weight healthy you can also decrease your risk of developing breast cancer?

How does my weight affect my chance of developing breast cancer?

Being overweight or obese after the menopause can increase your risk of developing breast cancer. After the menopause, levels of female sex hormones in your body, such as oestrogen, dramatically decrease. However, small amounts of oestrogen are still produced by fat tissue and so the more body fat you have, the more oestrogen you are likely to produce. This in turn can increase your risk of developing breast cancer, as oestrogen actually encourages some breast cancer cells to grow.

And it’s not just your weight after the menopause that is important. The more weight you gain as an adult, the higher your risk of developing breast cancer after the menopause. For this reason, it is important to maintain a healthy weight throughout your life, not just when you get older.

How do I know if I am overweight?

The most common way to check whether you are a healthy weight is by calculating your body mass index (BMI). The NHS calculator can do this for you using your height and weight and will show you whether your weight is within the healthy range or not.

It can also be useful to check your waist size, as this can indicate if you have too much fat around your stomach. To take a measurement, wrap a tape measure around your waist at the mid-point between your bottom rib and your hips. If you record a measurement over 31.5 inches you should try and lose weight.

How can I keep my weight healthy and reduce my chance of developing breast cancer?

Eating the right amount of calories is important for maintaining a healthy weight. This means making sure the energy contained in the food you eat does not exceed the energy your body actually needs. The average woman should aim to consume around 2,000 calories a day; the NHS calorie checker is one of many online tools that can help you keep track of your calories.

Eating a balanced diet rich in fruit and vegetables and low in sugary and fatty foods can help you maintain a suitable calorie intake. A balanced diet is also good for your health in other ways, lowering your risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and other forms of cancer.

You don’t necessarily need to make drastic changes to your diet to avoid gaining weight. Even small changes can make your diet healthier, such as using 1% milk or skimmed milk instead of semi-skimmed, trying a sugar-free or diet version of your favourite fizzy drink, or eating a piece of fruit rather than a chocolate bar when you fancy a snack.

Sticking to appropriate food portion sizes will also help you avoid eating excess calories. Bupa has guidelines to help you decide how much you should be eating during a typical meal.

Regular exercise is also a great way to maintain a healthy weight. Not only can exercise prevent weight gain, it also reduces your risk of developing breast cancer in its own right, through ways that we don’t yet fully understand. Exercise is good for your health in other ways too, reducing your risk of diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, and osteoporosis. There are many ways in which you can introduce physical activity into your daily life; take a look at our blog for some ideas.

What if I need to lose weight?

If you need to lose weight to bring yourself back within the healthy weight range and reduce your risk of developing breast cancer, making long-term changes to your lifestyle is recommended over rapid weight loss programs. The NHS offers a weight loss plan that can help you with this. Your doctor can also advise you on how to manage your weight.

Where can I look for more help?

The NHS offers lots of tips on diet, exercise, and healthy living. They also run Change4Life which has practical advice on healthy eating and exercise, and a smartphone app which can help you improve your healthy eating habits. If you live in Scotland you can visit Eat Better, Feel Better for recipes and handy hints on eating well.

You can also speak with your doctor if you would like more advice on introducing healthy habits into your daily life.


About the author

Dr Tom Beattie

Dr Tom Beattie is a Health Information Officer in the Public Health and Information Team at Breast Cancer Now. He has a PhD in molecular biology and is passionate about communicating accessible evidence-based scientific information to the public.

The Public Health and Information Team work to produce health information for our supporters that is both evidence-based and understandable. They also work on producing tools and resources to help people to reduce their risk of breast cancer and ensure that they’re doing all they can to detect breast cancer early.