by Louise Codling, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at World Cancer Research Fund.
Our analysis of global research shows strong evidence that being overweight or obese is linked to an increased risk of several cancers. These findings come at a time when there is a growing trend of overweight and obesity around the world. Globally there are around 1.9 billion people who are overweight or obese, and this number is increasing in both higher and lower income countries. It is clear that more needs to be done to tackle overweight and obesity by reducing the amount of unhealthy food that people eat. However this is incredibly complex and requires action at every possible level, from government right down to the individual.
Governments and policy makers
A huge hurdle in tackling overweight and obesity is that we live in an obesogenic world. Everywhere we look we are encouraged to make unhealthy decisions that make it easy to eat large amounts of high-calorie food and put on weight. These encouragements come under the guise of price promotions on unhealthy foods, sweets at supermarket checkout counters, junk food advertising to children, unhealthy food in hospital vending machines – the list goes on. The incentives to eat junk food in excess has a huge impact on health systems, which are struggling to deal with an increase in nutrition-related non-communicable diseases, such as various cancers, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
Governments play a vital role in making it easier to be healthy and ensuring that the healthy choice is the preferred choice. This starts with implementing policies that create an environment in which unhealthy behaviours are discouraged. Good examples of policies that have been implemented to encourage healthier behaviours include nutrition guidelines for schools, restrictions on junk food marketing to children and taxes on sugary drinks, but much more needs to be done. Our NOURISHING database describes policies that have been implemented around the world to tackle unhealthy diets and highlights gaps in policy action that need to be filled.
Changing the amount of unhealthy food a person eats can be very difficult. One of the reasons for this is that physiologically, the human body has maintained an evolutionary craving for high calorie foods, which during prehistoric times helped humans to survive. It is because we are hard-wired to crave fat and sugar that we can find it hard to resist high calorie foods. Unfortunately, the food industry use this to their advantage by engineering high calorie foods which play to our evolutionary cravings. Personal responsibility for health is important, but in a world that is so obesogenic, it can be a hard battle to fight.
To increase the chances of living a long and healthy life a good place to start is being aware of how industry is manipulating our eating habits. Other steps could include tracking BMI status and cooking healthy meals from scratch whenever possible.
Although a complex battle, it is essential that we take action at every level to change our culture of excess – only then can we stop the overweight and obesity crisis spiralling out of control.