Obesity is positively associated with colorectal cancer. Recently, body size subtypes categorised by the prevalence of hyperinsulinaemia have been defined, and metabolically healthy overweight/obese individuals (without hyperinsulinaemia) have been suggested to be at lower risk of cardiovascular disease than their metabolically unhealthy (hyperinsulinaemic) overweight/obese counterparts. Whether similarly variable relationships exist for metabolically defined body size phenotypes and colorectal cancer risk is unknown.
Methods and Findings
The association of metabolically defined body size phenotypes with colorectal cancer was investigated in a case–control study nested within the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) study. Metabolic health/body size phenotypes were defined according to hyperinsulinaemia status using serum concentrations of C-peptide, a marker of insulin secretion. A total of 737 incident colorectal cancer cases and 737 matched controls were divided into tertiles based on the distribution of C-peptide concentration amongst the control population, and participants were classified as metabolically healthy if below the first tertile of C-peptide and metabolically unhealthy if above the first tertile. These metabolic health definitions were then combined with body mass index (BMI) measurements to create four metabolic health/body size phenotype categories: (1) metabolically healthy/normal weight (BMI < 25 kg/m2), (2) metabolically healthy/overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2), (3) metabolically unhealthy/normal weight (BMI < 25 kg/m2), and (4) metabolically unhealthy/overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2). Additionally, in separate models, waist circumference measurements (using the International Diabetes Federation cut-points [≥80 cm for women and ≥94 cm for men]) were used (instead of BMI) to create the four metabolic health/body size phenotype categories. Statistical tests used in the analysis were all two-sided, and a p-value of <0.05 was considered statistically significant. In multivariable-adjusted conditional logistic regression models with BMI used to define adiposity, compared with metabolically healthy/normal weight individuals, we observed a higher colorectal cancer risk among metabolically unhealthy/normal weight (odds ratio [OR] = 1.59, 95% CI 1.10–2.28) and metabolically unhealthy/overweight (OR = 1.40, 95% CI 1.01–1.94) participants, but not among metabolically healthy/overweight individuals (OR = 0.96, 95% CI 0.65–1.42). Among the overweight individuals, lower colorectal cancer risk was observed for metabolically healthy/overweight individuals compared with metabolically unhealthy/overweight individuals (OR = 0.69, 95% CI 0.49–0.96). These associations were generally consistent when waist circumference was used as the measure of adiposity. To our knowledge, there is no universally accepted clinical definition for using C-peptide level as an indication of hyperinsulinaemia. Therefore, a possible limitation of our analysis was that the classification of individuals as being hyperinsulinaemic—based on their C-peptide level—was arbitrary. However, when we used quartiles or the median of C-peptide, instead of tertiles, as the cut-point of hyperinsulinaemia, a similar pattern of associations was observed.
These results support the idea that individuals with the metabolically healthy/overweight phenotype (with normal insulin levels) are at lower colorectal cancer risk than those with hyperinsulinaemia. The combination of anthropometric measures with metabolic parameters, such as C-peptide, may be useful for defining strata of the population at greater risk of colorectal cancer.
Gunter and colleagues analyse a large European dataset to determine how body size and metabolic profile associates with the risk of developing colorectal cancer.
Colorectal cancer is the third most common cancer worldwide and is a leading cause of cancer-related death, killing around 700,000 people every year. It develops when cells in the colon (the final part of the digestive system, which is also known as the large intestine or large bowel) or the rectum (the lower end of the colon) acquire genetic changes that allow them to divide uncontrollably to form a tumor and to move around the body (metastasize). Symptoms of colorectal cancer include blood in the stool, a change in bowel habits, and unexplained weight loss. Treatments for colorectal cancer include surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. As with other types of cancer, these treatments are more likely to be successful if started when the tumor is very small. Consequently, many countries run screening programs that use colonoscopy, the fecal occult blood test, and other tests to detect the earliest signs of colorectal cancer in apparently healthy people.
Why Was This Study Done?
Being obese—having too much body fat—is associated with an increased colorectal cancer risk (other risk factors include age, having a family history of colorectal cancer, and eating a high-fat, low-fiber diet). Obesity is also associated with several other chronic diseases, and recent evidence suggests that some obese individuals have a higher risk of developing these diseases than others. For example, overweight/obese individuals who have hyperinsulinemia (abnormally high blood levels of insulin; “metabolically unhealthy”) seem to have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease than their non-hyperinsulinemic (“metabolically healthy”) overweight counterparts. If certain combinations of metabolic health status and body size (“metabolically defined body size phenotypes”) are also associated with colorectal cancer, measurement of insulin levels in conjunction with body fat (adiposity) measurements such as body mass index (BMI; an indicator of body fat calculated by dividing a person’s weight in kilograms by their height in meters squared) might improve colorectal cancer risk assessment. In this nested case–control study, the researchers assess the associations between metabolically defined body size phenotypes and colorectal cancer risk. A nested case–control study identifies everyone in a group (here, participants in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition [EPIC] study) who has a specific condition, identifies matched individuals in the same group without the condition, and asks whether these controls and the cases differ in terms of a specific characteristic or outcome.
What Did the Researchers Do and Find?
The researchers matched 737 participants in the EPIC study who developed colorectal cancer after study enrollment with 737 controls and used serum concentrations of C-peptide, a marker of insulin secretion, and BMI measurements to classify each individual as metabolically healthy/normal weight, metabolically healthy/overweight, metabolically unhealthy/normal weight, or metabolically unhealthy/overweight. Specifically, the researchers categorized people as metabolically unhealthy if they had a C-peptide level above an arbitrarily chosen cut-off value based on the distribution of C-peptide levels in the control participants and as overweight if they had a BMI of ≥25 kg/m2 (the standard definition of overweight). Compared to metabolically healthy normal weight individuals, metabolically unhealthy normal weight and overweight individuals had an increased colorectal cancer risk; metabolically healthy overweight individuals had a similar colorectal cancer risk to metabolically healthy normal weight individuals. Among overweight individuals, metabolically healthy individuals had a lower colorectal cancer risk than metabolically unhealthy individuals. Finally, similar associations were seen when the researchers used waist circumference instead of BMI as the measure of adiposity.
What Do These Findings Mean?
These findings suggest that normal weight individuals with hyperinsulinemia (the metabolically unhealthy normal weight phenotype) have a higher risk of colorectal cancer than normal weight individuals without hyperinsulinemia. They also suggest that metabolically unhealthy overweight individuals have a higher risk of colorectal cancer than metabolically healthy overweight individuals. The accuracy of these findings may be limited by the method the researchers used to classify individuals as hyperinsulinemic—there is no universally accepted clinical definition for using C-peptide level to diagnose hyperinsulinemia. Nevertheless, these findings suggest that the assessment of insulin levels in conjunction with adiposity measures might be a better way to assess an individual’s colorectal cancer risk than simply measuring adiposity, and might help to identify those individuals at high risk of colorectal cancer who are most likely to benefit from targeted interventions designed to prevent the onset of clinical disease.
This list of resources contains links that can be accessed when viewing the PDF on a device or via the online version of the article at http://dx.doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001988.
The US National Cancer Institute provides information for patients about all aspects of colorectal cancer; it also provides more detailed information colorectal cancer for health professionals and information on cancer risk and obesity
The UK National Health Service Choices website has information and personal stories about colorectal cancer and information on obesity
The not-for-profit organization Cancer Research UK provides information about colorectal cancer and about the association between cancer and obesity
MedlinePlus provides links to further resources about colorectal cancer and about obesity
Wikipedia has a page on hyperinsulinemia (note that Wikipedia is a free online encyclopedia that anyone can edit; available in several languages)
More information about the EPIC study is available