More awareness needed on health risks of obesity

Wednesday, 13 December, 2017

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The number of people suffering from obesity has been steadily increasing over the last few decades, with 63% of the Australian adult population now classed as overweight or obese. This can have negative health effects such as an increased risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

According to research published by the Sax Institute in the journal Public Health Research & Practice, it is estimated that 3917 cancer cases (3.4% of all cancers) diagnosed in 2010 could be attributed to overweight/obesity, 7089 (6.1%) to inadequate diet and 1814 (1.6%) to inadequate physical activity. Therefore, it is more important now than ever to look into the causes of this weight gain and how to stem the problem, and it may come down to food labelling, marketing and food policy initiatives.

Cancer Council NSW researchers carried out a survey of 2474 adults in NSW and found that there was very low awareness about the link between overweight/obesity (40%) and lack of physical activity (24%) and cancer.

Without the knowledge about this issue, many were opposed to food policy initiatives that aimed to positively influence the food environment. The study found that those who were more aware of the link were more likely to support initiatives. Therefore, this highlights the importance of educating the population in order to bring about a change.

“Increasing awareness of the link between obesity-related lifestyle factors and cancer could increase community support for food policy initiatives, which, in turn, support the population to maintain a healthy weight,” Hughes said.

Researchers found that popular health policies included a colour-coded food labelling system (86%), displaying health warning labels on unhealthy food (79%) and a ban on unhealthy food advertising that targets children (73%). However, only 42% of people supported a tax on unhealthy foods.

“Restrictions on food marketing to children should remain a priority, given the high public acceptance and evidence of effectiveness,” said Clare Hughes, study co-author and nutrition program manager at Cancer Council NSW.

“It is also important to strengthen food labelling laws to ensure only healthy foods can carry claims about nutrition content. This would boost confidence in food labelling and better support consumers to make healthier food choices.”

The researchers concluded that the best way to tackle obesity would be using a multifaceted approach led by government policy. Some policies are already in place and the research found there is strong support for food labelling and marketing techniques. But the root of the issue is inevitably raising public awareness about the link between cancer and obesity-related lifestyle factors to increase support for more food policy initiatives.

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