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Leanness Trumps Calories, Reduces Cancer Risk

Eat All Your Want, But Burn All You Eat

It has long been believed that calorie restriction can prevent or delay cancer; this has been shown repeatedly in animal models. (Calorie restriction has also been shown to slow aging in animals, and many believe it will do the same for humans.) It is also well established that overweight or obesity substantially increases cancer risk. The question remains, however, whether calorie consumption or body composition is the key factor.

As a regular visitor to our site observed, the answer affects quality of life issues as well as cancer. It is one thing to reduce the calorie intake of mice by 20 to 40 percent, and quite another for humans to do it voluntarily. Perhaps it’s not so much the extra calories that are important, but rather how the body handles those calories. Researchers at the University of Alabama conceived an ingenious two-part experiment to find the answer. As you’ll see, exercise is not involved—not directly anyway.

In the first part of the experiment, reported in the January 1, 2007, issue of Cancer Research, mice prone to develop prostate cancer were divided into pairs, with one member of each pair housed at 27 degrees centigrade and the other at 22 degrees, for 21 weeks; both were fed the same diet, with the same number of calories. In the second part, the pairs were again housed at 27 and 22 degrees centigrade and fed the same diet, for 21 weeks. This time, however, they were allowed to eat all they wanted. You can guess what happened, at least to their body composition.

In the first part of the experiment, where both members of each pair ate the same number of calories, the mice housed at the warmer temperature weighed more and were fatter at the end of the 21 week period. The mice housed at the colder temperature, however, burned more calories staying warm and, as a result, ended the 21 weeks lighter and leaner.

The results were different when both mice were allowed to eat all they wanted. The warmer mice ate less and the colder mice ate more--and it was a wash in terms of body composition. There was no difference in their body weight or composition after 21 weeks.

What about the cancer? In the first experiment, where the cold mice and the warm mice ate the same number of calories, those that burned fewer calories keeping warm and stored the excess calories as fat had a greater rate of cancer, as compared to the mice that burned all calories consumed staying warm.

In the second experiment, where both members of each pair ate all they wanted, the mice in the colder environment ate 30% more food; nevertheless both cold and warm mice ended the 21 weeks with no change in body composition—or in cancer progression.

The researchers concluded: “[The results suggest] that excess calorie retention, rather than consumption, confers cancer risk.” In other words, increased calorie consumption per se does not increase the risk of developing cancer—if the extra calories are burned rather than stored as fat. Body composition, not food intake, appears to be the controlling factor in cancer risk.

Eat all you want, as long as you balance intake with energy expenditure. The best and most pleasant way to do that, of course, is to exercise. Exercise makes our natural appetite control and energy balancing mechanism work better. It's much easier to balance calories in and calories out when you exercise. We were born to be active—and lean. Reduced cancer risk appears to be a wonderful bonus.

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