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New research shows rates of obesity-related cancers quadrupled in a generation

New research by the Daffodil Centre shows the rate of obesity-related cancers in Australia almost quadrupled between 1983 and 2017, foreshadowing a growing preventable cancer crisis unless urgent steps are taken to reverse Australia’s obesity epidemic.

The Daffodil Centre analysed 35-year rates of 10 cancer types* in Australia, which according to World Health Organization and World Cancer Research Fund findings, are associated with obesity.

Senior Research Fellow and lead author of the research, Dr Eleonora Feletto, said the study found for cancers with an association with overweight and obesity, incidence was almost three times higher in young people, compared to those born in the late 1940s.

“For cancers without a clear association to overweight and obesity, we didn’t see the same rise, highlighting the growing concern for obesity as a public health epidemic,” said Dr Feletto.

Compared with other cancers, those strongly associated with obesity increased in incidence between 1983 and 2017 at an alarming rate.

The research is published in The Lancet Regional Health – Western Pacific.

Chair of Cancer Council’s Nutrition, Alcohol and Physical Activity Committee, Clare Hughes, said Australia is facing a large public health issue, “we are a wealthy country that’s proud of its health system, yet we’ve seen obesity rates continue to increase over decades.”

The research also showed a sharp increase in obesity-related cancers for people born after 1960, a time when rates of obesity in Australia began to rise significantly.

“Recent decades have seen changes in food supply, eating patterns, a rise in convenience and ultra-processed foods, overconsumption and inactive lifestyles – all of which create an environment that leads to increased body mass and poor health. With our research showing that the results of the obesity epidemic are leading to escalating preventable cancer incidence, governments need to take strong action to support improved nutrition and physical activity,” Hughes said.

Common cancers with an association with obesity, such as bowel cancer, saw up to three-fold increases in incidence for younger people, while less common cancers associated with obesity, such as liver, kidney, uterine, thyroid and pancreatic cancers, saw similar, if not higher, increases in incidence.

“In total, more than one million cases of cancer types that have an established association with obesity were diagnosed over the 35-year period,” Dr Feletto said. “The extent to which obesity directly causes these cancers varies. A pattern has emerged across all 10, showing that cancers related to obesity are increasing in incidence at a faster rate than those that are not obesity-related.”

Halting and reversing the rise in obesity rates by 2030 is a target of both the National Preventive Health Strategy and the National Obesity Strategy.

Cancer Council is calling on all governments to implement the recommendations of the National Obesity Strategy to raise awareness of the health consequences of obesity and introduce policies to address the environmental factors that contribute to excess weight gain.

In NSW, where one in five children is overweight or obese, they suggest the NSW Government needs to support families to live well by investing in public education campaigns that promote healthy eating, removing unhealthy food advertising from government-owned and contracted property, starting with public transport, and exploring strategies for low-income households to encourage consumption of healthy foods.



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