Reducing cancer risk by eating well and being active

Cancer Council funded research has shown that 200,000 Australian cancer cases could be prevented over the next 25 years if all adults maintained a healthy weight and got active. We also know that 6700 cancers each year are linked to poor diet. That’s why Cancer Council is empowering Australians to reduce their cancer risk.

It’s well known that an unhealthy diet and being above a healthy weight can lead to a multitude of chronic health conditions – such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease to name a few. But what is less known is that weight and diet, as well as physical activity levels, can have a significant impact on our cancer risk.

With more than two thirds of adults considered overweight or obese, most not eating sufficient fruit and vegetables and nearly half insufficiently active, Cancer Council recognises the potential to prevent a significant number of cancers in Australia and potentially save thousands of lives.

Tackling obesity is complex: but the good news is, people can make relatively simple changes to their lives to reduce their cancer risk. That’s why Cancer Council is working to implement a range of evidence-based strategies that aim to inform Australians and support people to develop healthier habits and improve their diets, maintain a healthy weight and be more active. Improving your diet can be as simple as eating more fruit, vegetables and whole grains and drinking fewer sugary drinks. When it comes to physical activity, just making an effort to be more active each day can lead to better health. On top of this, Cancer Council advocates for wider policy changes that will support people to be healthy, including protecting children from the marketing of unhealthy food.

Cancer Council partnerships to drive change

Cancer Council has been instrumental in forming important partnerships and alliances to drive momentum and a shared voice to implement policy change across the country. One of the more important of these is the internationally recognised Obesity Policy Coalition. Established in 2006, the Coalition is a unique collaboration between Cancer Council, Diabetes Victoria, VicHealth and the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University - a WHO Collaborating Centre.

The Obesity Policy Coalition aims to drive change through public discussion, policy change and appropriate regulation to improve diets and help prevent obesity. Put simply, they aim to make a healthy diet preferred and accessible for all Australians.

The Coalition has successfully taken on food companies, resulting in action by regulators’ taking action, including in the courts, to address misleading claims and ensure that marketing does not confuse the public. Their leadership has supported the development and roll out of the Health Star Rating program. In the ground-breaking “Tipping the Scales” report, the Coalition also united more than 35 leading community, public health, medical and academic groups to call for urgent Federal Government actions to address Australia’s obesity problem.

Alongside Cancer Council researchers and public health experts, the Coalition has also identified that a key intervention point is how food is marketed to children, including adolescents. Their focus is also on improving food environments, as this is where the biggest impact can be made for future behaviour habits, monitoring food labelling and recommending the implementation of taxes on sugary foods like soft drinks.

Encouraging people to develop healthy habits in childhood, as well as adolescence can have a huge benefit for individuals across their lifespan as well as for the health system more widely.

Jane Martin
Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition, Cancer Council Victoria

Empowering the community

Beyond driving important policy change, Cancer Council are also working with the community to provide credible and accessible information on how people can make changes to their diet and lifestyle to reduce their risk of cancer. While this seems simple in theory, our relationship with food and exercise is a complex one that is heavily influenced by the community in which we live. Furthermore, many Australians are not fully aware of the relationship between nutrition, physical activity and cancer risk, so Cancer Council’s role in this space continues to be of vital importance.

One such example is the LiveLighter program, which was initially developed in partnership with Cancer Council, the WA Government and the Heart Foundation, and is now being delivered across several Australian States and Territories. The program has successfully provided Australians with the information, tools and resources they need to eat well, become physically active and maintain a healthy weight. Mass media promotions have confronted people with the health impacts of their lifestyle choices, resulting in successfully raising awareness and influencing the choices people make.

Evidence for change

As with all Cancer Council programs, evidence and data are integral to our activity. The National Secondary Student Diet and Activity Survey (NaSSDA) is an example of this, helping us to understand what lifestyle decisions young people are making, how these are influenced by their environment and pinpointing where interventions can drive change. It also provides us with the means to track the impact of Cancer Council programs over time.

‘Preventing obesity in children will go a long way towards preventing cancer risk in adults in our community for years to come.

Jane Martin
Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition, Cancer Council Victoria

As time goes on, and obesity increases in our community, we are gaining a much clearer picture of how nutrition, physical activity and body weight can impact our risk of cancer. Continuing to support and run programs that encourage people to eat better and move more has the potential to turn the tide on the fastest growing cause of preventable cancer and leave us with a healthier and happier Australia.

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Looking AheadWe won’t rest until we’ve dramatically reduced the significant impact cancer has on every member of our community.