Each year over 2,000 children are diagnosed with leukemia in America alone, making it the most common cancer affecting the young. The disease is all the more devastating for the seeming randomness with which it selects its victims, but relatively new research suggests avoiding childhood obesity may greatly reduce the risk of cancer relapse.

study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology compared weight classification for 4,314 children newly diagnosed with leukemia with recovery and relapse rates during 8 years of follow up. The 8.6% of children classified as obese had a 29% increased risk of cancer relapse. However, the risk was even higher for obese (older) kids 10 years and up, who experienced a full 50% increased likelihood of relapse. Mercifully, obesity didn’t hinder overall remission rates, though clearly excess weight translated into added suffering for the young patients

Why might this be? More recent animal research found that obesity impaired the effectiveness of certain chemotherapy drugs, while lab results showed that leukemia cells appeared to seek refuge within fat cells, and the fat-embedded cancer cells demonstrated a six-fold resistance to chemotherapy. Not only does fat tissue impede cancer treatment, it increases the risk of developing cancer in the first place. Fortunately, a plant-based diet can help you maintain a healthy weight, while some research suggests particular fruit and vegetables — strawberries, pineapple, cranberries, cauliflower, green cabbage and tomatoes, as examples — have been linked to lower cancer risk. More research is needed to confirm these benefits.

Bonus: Researchers from University of California, Berkeley found that kids who regularly eat bananas and oranges early in life have a reduced risk of childhood leukemia.

Published November 1, 2010