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More Aware Yet Obesity Rates Still High

Ten years of YouGov surveys run by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) reveal that while awareness on cancer prevention is improving, there is still a long way to go for this to translate into positive behaviour change that would see obesity rates in the UK start to decline.

Every year since 2010, WCRF has been asking the nation what they think increases their risk of cancer; possible answers ranged from incorrect, such as stress and coffee, to correct answers, such as alcohol and obesity.

The biggest increase in awareness over ten years is the knowledge that processed meat can increase the risk of cancer, which has gone from 33% ten years ago to 56% in 2020 (an increase of 23 points). However, there has also been a large increase in the number of people who know that being overweight increases the risk of cancer (53% in 2010 to 69% in 2020) and that not being physically active also increases the risk (40% in 2010 to 53% now).1, 2

Although awareness of the cancer risk of being overweight or obese is increasing, rates of overweight and obesity within the UK have not gone down. For example, overweight and obesity prevalence in adults in England has remained at 63% since 2010.3, 4  In fact in 2010 obesity related hospital admissions in England were 142,219,5 and in 2018/2019 these cases increased six-fold to 876,000.6 This suggests that just knowing that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer is not enough for people to act to try to lose weight. WCRF has recently published a new guide, Weight matters: keeping healthy in an unhealthy world, which gives people practical tips on how to act to lose weight healthily and what they can do to create healthier environments for themselves. It’s not just up to individuals, though.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wants to intervene to lower obesity rates. These figures suggest that governments have a critical role to play in making our environments healthier so that it is easier for people to make healthier choices. This is more important than ever given how many diet-related health conditions are being linked to a worse COVID-19 infection outcome, including obesity.

Dr Giota Mitrou, WCRF’s Director of Research, said: “These increases in awareness are extremely encouraging and show that people are changing their attitudes towards risk factors and cancer. However, we hope that eventually, the number of people aware of the link between diet and physical activity and cancer will be as high as awareness on smoking and cancer, which has been at around 89% for the last ten years. We also want to see awareness levels translating into positive behaviour change, and our resources such as the new Weight matters guide encourages people to lose weight healthily to reduce their risk of cancer.”

Marion Foreman, a Cancer Rehabilitation Specialist, said: “We can see obesity-related hospital admissions are increasing, even though there is more awareness around the effect overweight and obesity has on our health, and especially on our risk of cancer. We need more accessible resources that can encourage and empower us all to make positive behaviour changes to manage our weight and help reduce our cancer risk. The new Weight matters guide provides us all with a range of practical tips and advice to help manage our weight, effectively and healthily. This new guide will help us to make informed and positive choices about our diet and lifestyle. It also looks at how our environment can influence what we eat, and how we can combat this so making the healthy choice becomes the easy choice.”

Around 40% of cancers are preventable7 – which is around 147,000 cases every year in the UK8 – if everyone was healthier, and this includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of at least 12 different types of cancer.9

References: 1. YouGov 2020, figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size for the 2020 results was 2032 adults and fieldwork was undertaken between 14–17 February 2020.  The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).; 2. YouGov 2010, figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size for the 2019 results was 2023 adults and fieldwork was undertaken between 19–22 February 2010.  The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).; 3. Health Survey for England, 2018, accessed 07/05/20:; 4. Health Survey for England, 2010, accessed 07/05/20::; 5. Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England, 2011, accessed 07/05/20:; 6. Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2020. Accessed 07/05/20:; 7. World Health Organization (WHO), Cancer Prevention, accessed 07/05/20.; 8. World Cancer Research Fund, cancer statistics based on combined data from EnglandScotlandWales and Northern Ireland, 2020.; 9. WCRF’s research shows that overweight and obesity increase the risk of: mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers, oesophageal cancer, stomach cancer, pancreatic cancer, gallbladder cancer, liver cancer, bowel cancer, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, womb cancer, prostate cancer, kidney cancer.

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