Overweight, obesity and cancer – the growing global challenge

15 December 2017 | Cancer prevention

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 this first of two posts about obesity, she outlines the disturbing extent of the global problem.

Talking about overweight and obesity – and other lifestyle factors related to cancer risk – is part of the fabric and landscape of working at World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) International. Just like a familiar landscape, sometimes you stop really seeing it.

Then, every so often, something happens that pulls me up short and reminds me why what we do is so important. 

Obesity – international debate

That happened not just once, but twice recently at events WCRF International participated in. At the National Cancer Research Institute conference (5–8 November 2017, Liverpool), we co-hosted a session with Cancer Research UK on overweight and obesity.

A slide from a presentation at the National Cancer Research Institute Conference

In it, we showed the global increase in the number of people – men, women, boys and girls – living with obesity now compared with 1975 (see above). The increase in numbers over the past 40 years is truly astronomical, over 1,000 per cent in some cases – and these numbers just cover obesity. An additional 213 million children and adolescents and 1.3 billion adults are in the overweight range, even if they are below the threshold for obesity. So, a disturbingly sizeable proportion of the population of our planet is overweight or obese.

Obesity and environmental factors

This huge increase in overweight and obesity is fuelling the increase in cancer around the world, especially in low- and middle-income countries as they transition to a more westernised lifestyle. We know that overweight and obesity is linked to at least 11 cancer types, including breast, colorectal and prostate. Of course, people haven‘t changed in 40 years but the environment within which they live and make their choices is dramatically different now compared with 1975.

So, if we want to make a real dent in these soaring obesity rates we need to look not just at people themselves but also their environment – and the way to do that is through policy.

Dr Kate Allen | 15 December 2017