More than 124,000 people in Europe developed cancer last year because they are overweight, and rising body fat levels threaten to add tens of thousands more to their ranks, experts said on Thursday.
A study of cancer among overweight people in Europe showed the proportion of new cases of the disease caused by people being fat was highest in women and in central European countries like the Czech Republic, Latvia, Slovenia and Bulgaria.
The most common cancers linked to excess body weight were endometrial, breast and colorectal cancers.
It is possible that obesity may become the biggest attributable cause of cancer in women within the next decade, lead researcher Andrew Renehan, of Cardiff University in Britain, told the ECCO-ESMO European cancer congress in Berlin.
Renehan used data from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Agency for Research on Cancer to estimate that in 2002 some 70,0000 new cases of cancer in 30 European countries were caused by people being overweight or obese.
The study used WHO definitions, classing overweight as having a body mass index (BMI) between 25 and 30, and obese as having a BMI of 30 or more.
They then projected the figures forward to 2008, taking into account the steep decline in women's use of hormone replacement therapy from 2002 after it was linked to increased risk of breast cancer, and the wider use of prostate cancer screening.
They found that the number of cancers that could be attributed to excess body weight increased to 124,050 in 2008.
In men, 3.2 percent of new cancers were attributed to being overweight or obese and in women it was 8.6 percent, and at a country level, obesity-related cancer is a greater problem for central European countries like the Czech Republic, but less of a problem in France and Denmark.
The largest number of obesity-related new cancers was for endometrial cancer (33,421), post-menopausal breast cancer (27,770) and colorectal cancer (23,730). Together, they accounted for 65 percent of all cancers attributable to fat.
Renehan stressed that his numbers were very conservative estimates and urged health authorities to take note.
In the face of an unabating obesity epidemic, and apparent failure of public health policies to control weight gain, there is a need to look at alternative strategies, including pharmacological approaches, he said.
Obesity has long been known to raise the risk of cancer, and the evidence continues to mount. Swedish researchers said in June that women who had weight-loss surgery were 42 percent less likely to develop cancer during a 10-year study.
Although European countries are taking some steps to tackle the obesity epidemic, the study emphasized the urgency of the task and the scale of the problems caused by fat, Renehan said.