Background: 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.
Conclusions: 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.