Overweight, obesity and cancer – the importance of prevention

20 December 2017 | Cancer prevention, Policy

Dr Kate Allen is World Cancer Research Fund International’s Executive Director of Science & Public AffairsDr Kate Allen is World Cancer Research Fund International’s Executive Director of Science & Public Affairs. In the second of two posts about obesity, she outlines the organisation’s work to put cancer prevention initiatives and policymaking at the top of the global obesity agenda.

In my previous post, I demonstrated the sobering nature of the sheer scale of what confronts us in terms of overweight and obesity, as outlined in World Cancer Research Fund International’s recent joint session with Cancer Research UK at the National Cancer Research Institute conference. It was my first ‘pulled up short’ moment.

My second was at the World Cancer Leaders' Summit (13–15 November, New Mexico), where 350 leaders from around the world met to discuss the importance of accelerating action to ensure the UN global target of a 25 per cent reduction in premature mortality from non-communicable diseases (NCDs) is met by 2025.

A key theme was Cities Driving Change, focusing on the Union for International Cancer Control’s (UICC) City Cancer Challenge project, an important and ambitious initiative with the objective of improving cancer control in cities of over 1 million people.

Championing the cancer prevention agenda

At the moment, the focus is on diagnosis and treatment as this is the quickest way to help achieve the UN target. However, we need to include prevention in this important initiative – realising this was my second ‘pulled up short’ moment.

Of course, better and earlier diagnosis and treatment are critical in combating cancer, but we’re shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted if the factors that are fuelling cancer rates aren’t also addressed. The plan is to include prevention in the City Cancer Challenge in the future – World Cancer Research Fund International welcomes this, and believes it will need active championing.

WCRF's Nourishing Framework

Given that overweight and obesity is a complex issue with many elements involved, how can we approach tackling it? There’s no silver bullet – we need an evidence-based, multifaceted and coordinated approach that addresses the obesogenic environment driving those spectacular increases in the number of people living with obesity over the past 40 years or so.

Our vehicle for change

World Cancer Research Fund International’s NOURISHING framework is an instrument for changing this external environment so that people can make healthier choices. The framework highlights where governments can take action to promote healthy diets and reduce overweight and obesity. It brings together ten policy areas across three domains (food environment, food system and behaviour change communication) and is accompanied by a regularly updated database, providing an extensive overview of implemented government policy actions from around the world. You can sign up to receive updates on NOURISHING

Given the global burden of cancers linked to weight, plus declining smoking rates (at least in the developed world), overweight and obesity could overtake smoking as the main preventable risk for cancer within our lifetimes. That’s why it’s so important to step up global efforts now – time is not on our side.

Dr Kate Allen | 20 December 2017

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