BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – A person’s body composition, as opposed to food consumption, may be the key to reducing cancer risks, according to a University of Alabama at Birmingham study.

The study, published in the journal Cancer Research, reported that lean mice had a much slower progression of cancer than did heavier mice, even though both groups of mice ate the same amount of food.

The research suggests that how the body handles calories is more important to controlling cancer risks than how many or how few calories are consumed. It’s a finding that could have implications for preventing and treating cancer in humans, researchers said.

“This study suggests that body composition, being lean as opposed to being obese, has a greater protective effect against cancer,” said Tim R. Nagy, a professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the study’s principal investigator. “Excess calorie retention, rather than consumption, confers cancer risk.”

Nagy’s team placed lab mice, which were specially bred so they were susceptible to prostate cancer, into two environments – one slightly colder than the other. The researchers fed the mice equal amounts of food. The mice living in the cooler environment needed more energy to stay warm and so burned more calories. These mice lost weight and were leaner than the mice kept at the warmer temperature.

The mice kept in the warmer environment were heavier and fatter. Cancer in these mice progressed at a greater rate than in the lean mice. The heavier mice also had higher levels of leptin, a hormone associated with obesity that promotes cancer, and lower levels of adiponectin, a hormone that appears to protect against cancer.

“We believe this is the first study to show that the beneficial effect on cancer risk by reducing the number of calories in the diet is more closely related to leanness or obesity than previously thought, and not a factor of food intake or total calories ingested,” Nagy said in a prepared statement.

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