Hardly a week goes by without obesity hitting the headlines. Earlier this month for example, TV chef Jamie Oliver joined a coalition of health experts in calling for global action to tackle the obesity epidemic.
Also in the past couple of weeks, McDonalds announced it’d be calorie-labelling all its products in line with the government’s Responsibility Deal, and the Lancet medical journal published research looking at WeightWatchers’ effectiveness.
You could be forgiven for being fed up of hearing about the weight problem. Does it really matter if the UK’s population is getting bigger?
Unfortunately, when it comes to health, and the personal and societal cost of the diseases linked with being overweight and obesity – including cancer – the answer is definitively yes.
Obesity and cancer
It’s a fact that many types of cancer are more common in people who are overweight or obese. And – after quitting smoking – keeping a healthy body weight is one of the best ways to reduce your chances of getting cancer.
As a cancer charity, our focus is, of course, on cancer. But obesity is also associated with other chronic and sometimes life-threatening diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
This is why we need to keep talking about obesity, and keep it at the top of the political agenda. The stakes are high – if current trends continue and every generation gets heavier than the last, the disease burden linked with obesity is going to be huge.
It’s no mystery that you put on weight when you take in more energy through food and drink than you use up by being physically active. So to stop (or reverse) weight gain, we need to get less energy in and more energy out – eat less, move more – simple right?
In theory, yes, and at an individual level these simple steps really do help. But according to leading experts, we need to focus not just on the individual, but on how modern living and the wider cultural and societal trends are behind the soaring obesity epidemic.
Last month top medical journal The Lancet launched its ‘Obesity series’ – a collection of publications that provides a current look at the causes, future trends and consequences, and possible solutions for obesity globally. In particular, the report named greater supply and availability of increasingly processed, cheap, energy-dense foods and striking marketing as some of the main feeders of the obesity beast.
And if it continues to grow at the same rate as it has over the last two decades, experts expect to see an additional 11 million obese adults in the UK. This would translate to 130,000 extra cancer cases in this country.
The series drives home the point that obesity is a complex issue, and tackling it lies far beyond individual choice alone. In fact on the front cover of this Lancet edition is a quote from the opening comment for the series, which reads:
The conclusions are unambiguous. We need collaborative societal changes in many aspects of our environment to avoid the morbid consequences of overweight and obesity.
But it’s important to keep these matters on the political agenda - indeed, the world’s great and good met for the UN High-Level meeting on Non Communicable Diseases in New York earlier this week. We talked about what a huge opportunity this UN meeting could be last month (and we’ll be blogging about reaction the the meeting’s declaration soon).
What are governments currently doing?
Earlier this year the UK government launched the public health Responsibility Deal – in their own words – ‘established to tap into the potential for businesses and other organisations to improve public health and tackle health inequalities through their influence over food, alcohol, physical activity and health in the workplace’. (you can read our thoughts on this here)
As we highlighted above, as part of that deal, McDonald’s recently took its first tentative step by displaying the calorie content of its fast food. It certainly sounds like the ‘responsible’ thing to do. But just publishing the calorie content of a food product leaves a lot unsaid. For example, it doesn’t tell us how much fat or what type of fat it has, nor does it tell us how much sugar or salt it has. Simply put, calories tell us about the energy content of food, but nothing about the nutritional value or quality.
What are researchers doing?
Researchers around the world are trying to find solutions to the problems posed by our growing waistlines. As we mentioned above, the authors of a recent study in the Lancet suggested that people be referred on the NHS to commercial weight loss programmes like WeightWatchers.
It would probably take a whole new post to cover this research in detail, but although the results were surprising and encouraging, we’re remaining cautious for now – particularly given the sensitivities of private sector involvement in the NHS.
What are we doing?
Since obesity is one of the biggest avoidable causes of cancer, it’s up to Cancer Research UK to also play its part. We’re already helping in several ways, for example:
- lobbying for coordinated government policies
- funding high-quality research into the causes of obesity
- providing scientifically based information and solutions.
We’re working hard on all those areas, and linking up with other health charities and organisations, all aiming to make a positive impact on reducing obesity rates in the UK.
What can you do?
Yes, many of us have to spend hours at a time on our behinds at our desks to pay the bills. Yes, our foods are filled with with sugar and salt like there’s no tomorrow. Yes, we live in an ‘obesogenic’ (as health experts put it) environment.
But does that mean we should surrender? Or can we do our bit for our own health and the health of our family members?
To help, Cancer Research UK and Weight Concern have developed a great way to help you fight back and keep a healthy weight – our Ten Top Tips. The tips are based on scientific evidence and designed to fit into your daily life, so check them out and see if you can make some small changes to the way you think about food and physical activity. Then watch the benefits stack up.
As with most things that are truly worthwhile and important, tackling the obesity epidemic isn’t going to be easy, and needs input from all parts of society – the individual, industry, non-governmental organisations such as charity, and our government.
We will continue to play our part, and hope to see significant progress as a result of this week’s UN meeting. This meeting represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make a huge difference in the fight against diseases such as cancer, and tackling obesity is an important part of this fight.
Yinka Ebo is a senior health information officer at Cancer Research UK