Sarah Boseley is the Guardian’s award-winning health editor and author of ‘The Shape We’re In: How junk food and diets are shortening our lives’. Here she writes about the dangers of obesity, and calls for more robust action to warn people of the impact of being overweight:
‘The tombstone adverts on mainstream national television of the mid-80s warning us of that Aids was a death sentence were unforgettable. The more recent anti-smoking adverts showing cigarettes metamorphosing into tumours were stomach-turning. Governments in the UK have successfully mounted powerful public health campaigns – and yet, when it comes to the serious and growing health impact of obesity, the warning voices are barely more than whispers. It appears the best we can manage are the blob-like cartoon figures of Change4Life who try to jolly us along into attempting a bit more exercise and watching our diet. The humour and gentle tone of it all is a disincentive to taking it seriously.
Small wonder then that obesity is growing and most people appear not to understand that it has the potential to shorten our lives and wreck their quality with disability. The warnings of the public health community are drowned by the multi-million pound marketing of the food and drink industry which has, in the last three decades, succeeded in persuading us to eat more and to cut corners by buying packaged food and ready meals and snacks in the name of convenience and living life to the full. We have bought their message that cooking is too time-consuming for the working man and woman, except perhaps at weekends. We have believed that we deserve frequent treats and sweets and sugar-sweetened fizzy drinks and that the old message of not eating between meals is out-dated. And we sit still more and move less. So now we are in a situation we would never have imagined in the 1980s, where most of us – indeed, nearly two-thirds of us – are overweight or obese.
We no longer notice that people are fat. Although the f-word and the o-word still carry a massive stigma and are thought insulting (with the result that a lot of GPs are reluctant to raise the weight issue with their patients) we don’t see what is happening around us because overweight has become normal. It’s particularly true in some populations, where people have less money and less options in life and filling, fattening food has become ever cheaper. In communities where fried chicken and fried fish takeaways proliferate, waist measurements are dangerously large.
The toll this is taking of our health is grim. Most cases of type 2 diabetes are directly linked to overweight and the numbers of new diagnoses are soaring. The disease already swallows 10% of the NHS budget and that is growing. Type 2 diabetes can be controlled by drugs, but in too many cases there are complications, including blindness and amputations. Heart disease and strokes are fairly well-known consequences of obesity and efforts to limit the damage include the controversial handing out of statins to ever larger numbers of people. But few people who are overweight understand how much it increases their risk of cancer.
According to the World Health Organisation, overweight and obesity are the most significant preventable causes of cancer after smoking – yet most people are more likely to fret about air pollution or food colourants. The unwillingness on the part of doctors, politicians (concerned about damaging the profitable UK food industry) and most of us in social situations to be open about the dangers of getting fat have distorted the picture. But obesity is responsible for an estimated 17,000 cancers in the UK every year.
The evidence is strong in breast cancers in women after the menopause. Between 7% and 15% of those breast cancers are caused by obesity, scientists believe. The Million Women study in the UK, run from Oxford University, found that post-menopausal women who were obese had a 30% higher risk of breast cancer than those of normal weight. And because weight is so hard to shift, women who put it on in their youth have an increased risk of breast cancer in the long term.
Obesity is one of the most important causes of bowel cancer, which few realise, causing more than one in ten cases. It raises the risk of endometrial or womb cancer three to four times and triples the risk of oesophageal cancer. It is implicated in pancreatic, kidney and gallbladder cancer and there is some evidence that it could also be a factor in others, from brain cancer to leukaemia and ovarian cancer before the menopause.
This is preventable risk, but too many people have no idea of the danger they could be in. Our “have it all” culture encourages us to eat and drink what we like, when we like and racks up the profits of the food and drink companies who compete with each other for ever bigger, more profitable shares of the market. Traffic light food labelling is an achievement, but gets nowhere near the sort of health warning we need. Cigarette packets tell us stridently that smoking could cause us to get cancer. Isn’t it about time that we heard a similar message concerning over-eating and junk food and drink?’
This blog was commissioned by WCRF UK. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of WCRF UK, or any of its partners.