Obesity: a threat to global health

Illustration of the globe with a measuring tape wrapped around it

Sarah WestSarah West is Director of Communications. She has 15 years’ experience of working in communications and campaigns both nationally and internationally. Before joining World Cancer Research Fund International she worked for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance, managing press relations and has worked for government, business and international NGOs, running high profile advocacy campaigns. Sarah is a Member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations.

According to the Global Burden of Disease Study published today there were three times more deaths attributed to excess body weight in 2010 than to malnutrition.

But should we be surprised? Health experts have been warning us for years of a growing obesity epidemic and the health problems related to our ever-expanding waistlines.

Given the strong link between obesity and cancer, it’s not unexpected then that the report also highlights that the numbers of people dying from cancer are up by more than a third in the past 20 years to 8 million in 2010.

We have plenty of good scientific evidence available that being overweight increases the risk of a number of cancers including: pancreatic, bowel, breast, oesophagus, kidney, womb and gallbladder cancers.

In fact, after not smoking maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing a person can do for cancer prevention.

Changing diets are partly to blame for this obesity and overweight epidemic. We are consuming far too many calories, fat, salt and sugar but it’s not just a question of personal choice. Our lifestyles are influenced by our environments.

Smoking and drinking alcohol are clearly highlighted in the report as the biggest health risks in the world today, along with high blood pressure.

The marketing of unhealthy foods, cheap alcohol and urban environments that make it difficult to conduct regular physical exercise and activity have a huge impact on our behaviours.

Global, regional and national policies and programmes need to help support people to make better lifestyle choices. This is essential if cancers caused by factors such as alcohol, unhealthy diets and lack of physical activity are to be reduced.

This report clearly highlights the growing prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like cancer, diabetes and heart disease, increasingly in many countries that have previously been unaffected.

Prevention is the most cost-effective and sustainable way of reducing the cancer and NCD burden in the long-term. An estimated 2.8 million cancers could be prevented through a healthy diet, physical activity and maintaining a healthy body weight.

WCRF International and the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO) are holding a joint conference in April 2013 to further examine the links between obesity, physical activity and cancer to continue to develop our understanding of these issues.

Today’s news is another wake up call but are we ready to make the tough choices that are required to tackle this pressing issue?