Kirstie Alley was an actress who gained fame when she joined the cast of Cheers in its sixth year, after Shelley Long (“Diane”) left the popular series. Alley was nominated four times for Emmy awards, and received one for Cheers and one for David’s Mother. She appeared in many movies including Star Trek II and Look Who’s Talking with John Travolta, and has a motion picture star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
On December 5, 2022 at age 71, Alley died a short time after being diagnosed with colon cancer. She had a lifelong history of an unhealthful diet, and after reaching menopause, she spent years repeatedly gaining weight and then losing it, as much as 90 pounds in a cycle. One of the consequences of obesity is an overactive immune system, called inflammation (Endocrine, Metabolic & Immune Disorders, September 9, 2020;21(1):77 – 90), which is associated with increased risk for colon cancer.
Early Years, Acting Career and Weight Problems
Alley was born in Wichita, Kansas, in 1951, and was graduated from Wichita Southeast High School. She went to Kansas State University for two years and then moved to Los Angeles where she worked as an interior designer while trying to break into film and television. By the mid-1980s she had appeared in several films, and her big breakthrough came in 1987 when she began her seven-year run on Cheers.
Alley told the media that she was a foodie and ate lots of fattening foods, such as cheeseburgers, pies, and brownies, with a diet loaded with butter and Chinese take-out food. However, she said that she did not gain extra weight until she went into menopause at age 52. She said that her weight gain started when she became a vegetarian. “”For seven months I was a vegetarian, and I can’t tell you how much weight I gained being a vegetarian . . . to me being a vegetarian meant I’m going to eat enchiladas with no meat, and I’m going to eat lots of bread, lots of carbs.”
While she was repeatedly losing and then regaining weight, she did a lot of media interviews telling people how to lose weight. She claimed that she worked out three times a week, but said, “I hate the gym. It bores the bejeezus out of me.” She also said that she did not eat after 7PM. She told People magazine, “I can have anything I want, I’m just counting the calories. I know how many calories six ounces of tenderloin is. I know that pasta is 200 calories in a cup. So as long as I keep steady that way, and count it up, it’s easy to count because I know how many calories those foods that I really love are.” However, there is little evidence that counting calories is effective for long-term weight control (Perspect Psychol Sci, Sep 2017;12(5):703–714). What you eat may be far more important than how much you eat. Reducing intake of added sugars, highly processed foods and refined grains, and increasing vegetables and other whole foods, can be far more effective for weight control than counting calories or limiting portion sizes (JAMA, Feb 20, 2018;319(7):667-679). To lose weight and keep it off, you need to commit to significant permanent lifestyle changes.
Spokesperson for Weight Loss Companies
In 2004, when she was grossly overweight, Alley worked as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig. In the next three years she lost 75 pounds, bringing her weight down to 145 pounds. After leaving Jenny Craig, the 5’7″ actress gained 83 pounds, bringing her weight up to 228 pounds. She then started her own company, Organic Liaison Weight-Loss System, and in 2011 at age 60, she claimed that she had lost 100 pounds using her weight loss products. In 2012, a class-action lawsuit claimed that she lost that weight by training several hours each day, including dancing with Maksim Chmerkovskiy on the 15th season of Dancing with the Stars. The next year, she settled the lawsuit for $130,000 and agreed to remove the term “Proven Products” from her packaging and to state that it was a “calorie-based weight-loss product”. In April 2014, she sold Organic Liaison to Jenny Craig and again became a spokesperson for that company. She claimed that on the Jenny Craig program, she had lost 50 pounds.
How Obesity and Yoyo Dieting Cause Inflammation to Increase Cancer Risk
Your immune system produces cells and chemicals to heal damaged tissues. The visible signs of inflammation — redness, swelling, tenderness or soreness, fever — tell you that your immune system is working to combat an injury or infection. As soon as the germ is gone or your tissue heals, your immune system is supposed to dampen down and stop making large amounts of these cells and antibodies. If your immune system does not stop making excessive amounts of cells and proteins to kill germs and heal tissues, the inflammation continues and these same cells and proteins can attack your healthy tissues to increase risk for cancer, heart attacks, strokes, diabetes, auto-immune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, and many other diseases. Chronic inflammation can lead to:
• Cancers: An overactive immune system can attack cells to damage the genetic material called DNA. The abnormal DNA allows cells that normally live for a limited time to try to live forever. If your immune system does not recognize and kill these cancer cells, they can spread to and damage other parts of your body.
• Heart attacks: The same immune chemicals that dissolve the outer membranes of bacteria can dissolve the inner linings of your arteries to punch holes in them and start the formation of plaques. A heart attack occurs when a plaque breaks off from the inner lining of an artery leading to your heart and clots form, which can prevent blood from reaching parts of your heart muscle. If you do not die during a heart attack, the part of your heart muscle that was deprived of oxygen dies and is replaced by scar tissue.
• Strokes: A stroke can occur when plaque breaks off from an artery leading to your brain, causing bleeding and then clotting that can eventually extend to block blood flow to the brain.
• Diabetes: One type of diabetes can occur when your immune system attacks and kills the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. You develop diabetes because you lack insulin. Another type of diabetes can occur when obesity causes excess fat to be deposited in the liver. Insulin lowers high blood sugar by driving sugar from the bloodstream into the liver. A liver full of fat cannot accept sugar from the bloodstream to cause blood sugar and insulin levels to rise even higher.
• Auto-Immune Diseases: Specific diseases that appear to be caused by your own immune system attacking your own healthy tissues, are grouped together and called auto-immune diseases. Your overactive immune system can cause rheumatoid arthritis to destroy your joints and tendons, lupus to destroy your kidneys and other parts of your body, or many other auto-immune diseases such as dermatomyositis or scleroderma.
When you are overweight, you have frequent high rises in blood sugar that damage tissues. Your immune system responds by working to heal the damaged tissues, so an overweight person is in a constant state of inflammation (Cardiovasc Diabolo, Jan 16, 2016;15(82). Here is a more detailed explanation:
• Excess fat is particularly harmful when it is in organs such as the liver.
• Excess liver fat, called a fatty liver, causes high blood sugar levels.
• When blood sugar rises too high, the pancreas releases insulin which lowers blood sugar by driving sugar from the bloodstream into the liver.
• If the liver is full of fat, it cannot accept the sugar and blood sugar levels rise even higher.
• High blood sugar levels cause sugar to stick to the membranes of cells and destroy them.
• Damaged cells cause inflammation that increases cancer risk.
• High blood sugar also causes your pancreas to release huge amounts of insulin, so you have high blood levels of insulin until your pancreas is damaged and becomes unable to produce insulin.
• High levels of insulin can cause uncontrolled growth of cells, which is cancer.
Colon Cancer is Often a Lifestyle Disease
Colon cancer is sometimes linked to genetic factors, but there are many lifestyle factors that you can follow to significantly reduce your risk for developing colon cancer (Front Oncol, July 22, 2022).
• Dietary factors: Restrict red meat and processed meat (Cancer Causes Control, 2013; 24 (4): 611-27); restrict sugar-added foods and drinks (Cancer Causes Control, 2012; 23 (4): 521-535), restrict deep fried foods (Annals of Oncology, Jan 1, 2007;18(1):36-39), eat lots of whole grains (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2014; 106: djt362), fruits and vegetables (Brit J of Nutr, 2019;122:605–615), and other foods containing dietary fiber (Plos One, 2012;7:1–10).
• Exercise factors: Exercise regularly (Br J Cancer, 2011;104(5):882–5; Brit J of Sprts Med, 2016;50(6):372-378), keep on moving (BMC Cancer, Jan 11, 2018;18:71), avoid a sedentary lifestyle (Int J Cancer, 2016;138(9):2109-2117), restrict television viewing and other passive pastimes that involve sitting or lying down (J Natl Cancer Inst, 2014;106(7):dju098).
• Weight control factors: Avoid being overweight or obese (BMJ, 2017;356:j477), avoid being overweight in early life (Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev.,2015;24(4):690-697), avoid gaining weight in later life (Ann Oncol, Jun 1, 2017;28(6):1217-1229; Int J Epidemiol, Jun 2016;45(3):871-83), avoid abdominal obesity (Biosci Rep, 2017;37(6):20170945), avoid metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance and diabetes (Nature, 2006;444(7121):840-846).
• Toxic substance factors: Do not smoke and avoid exposure to second-hand smoke or any other source of smoke (Brit J of Cancer, Mar 30, 2020;122:1604–1610), avoid or restrict alcohol (Lancet Oncol, 2006; 7: 149-156), avoid toxic substances and sources of radiation in your workplace or recreational activities.
A Message from Kirstie Alley’s Death
Many cancers, including those of the prostate, breast and colon, are linked to lifestyle factors. You can reduce your chances of suffering these cancers, and perhaps slow their spread if you already have them, by following the lifestyle changes listed above. All Cancer Treatments Should Include Lifestyle Improvements
Kirstie Louise Alley
January 12, 1951 – December 5, 2022