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Research

Wake-up call on healthy lifestyles

A recent social attitude survey suggests that we are becoming more judgmental as a nation.

This tendency to blame individuals for their failings - accusing the unemployed of simply being lazy rather than asking whether the jobs are there in the first place - chimes with the Government's increasing emphasis on nudging individual citizens towards virtuous living rather than seeking to change the laws or introduce new regulations.

But with increasing evidence that being overweight or obese significantly increases your risk of developing cancer, Durham University diet expert Dr Amelia Lake believes that we need to do more than simply ask people to eat more healthily.

Dr Lake is one of many diet experts in the UK who wants to see greater regulation of the way food is manufactured, sold and labelled to make it much easier for people to choose healthy options.

Nobody is arguing with the idea of ensuring people have as much information as possible about healthy food choices but Dr Lake says that doesn't help the average person if they are surrounded by mostly unhealthy food.

The need to try to help people help themselves in terms of healthy eating is becoming increasingly urgent because of the growing problems of mass obesity in our society, says Dr Lake.

While it is already well known that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cardio-vascular problems and diabetes - as well as putting extra strain on your joints - it was a recent report led by Professor Max Parkin, of Queen Mary College in London, that made it crystal clear how being overweight is a significant additional risk factor for cancer.

The report, funded by Cancer Research UK and published in the British Journal of Cancer, suggested that more than 130,000 cases of cancer, half the number diagnosed in Britain each year are due to preventable lifestyle choices rather than being due to genetic inheritance.

The risk factors include the usual suspects, smoking and drinking alcohol, but many experts have been surprised at how being overweight or obese is so significant as a risk for cancer.

While cigarettes are the biggest culprit, causing 23 per cent of cases in men and 15.6 per cent in women, the next major risk factors are a lack of fresh fruit and vegetables in men's diets and - for women - it is simply being overweight.

For Dr Lake this is the latest in a series of wake-up calls which suggest that urgent action is needed to prevent a public health calamity in the near future.

''Here in the North-East we are not known for our low rates of obesity and healthy diets. In fact, we are known for the exact opposite, which is why this report has particular implications for our region,'' says Dr Lake.

''A lot of people think that cancer is something that you are fated to get, but in 40 per cent of cases this is due to lifestyle factors. That means there is an opportunity to control your lifestyle to reduce your risk of getting cancer,'' she adds.

''Just basic things like controlling your weight can be very significant. There are a whole range of health benefits if you take control of your weight, which also means you are taking control of your diet.'' Dr Lake says health professionals have been aware of the link between being overweight and having a higher risk of cancer for some time, but this new report made it crystal clear to the man and woman in the street.

''A lot of people do not associate being overweight with cancer but this report shows a very strong causal link, particularly for women.'' While she hopes this might change attitudes, she fears that unless we make it easier to buy healthier food this will not have a significant effect.

"I think Joe and Joanna Public live in a world where food is expensive and where trying to eat healthily is perceived as being expensive,'' she says.

 ''It is very easy to get quite unhealthy food but you often have to make more of an effort to get something more healthy. So it is about making choices but within the limits of our environment.''

Dr Lake is under no illusion about the importance of individuals making healthy choices, but feels that they could be helped by changing the environment they live in: ''Individuals certainly have a responsibility to make healthy choices but society has a responsibility to make the environment a healthier place.''

The public health lecturer is worried that, if nothing changes, the outlook in the region is potentially disastrous: ''Given our high rates of child obesity in the North-East, when those children become obese adults we are looking at phenomenal rates of cancer on top of a huge burden of diabetes.'' This will place more and more of a burden on an already hard-pressed NHS, she adds.

Dr Lake argues that the Government needs to impose greater regulation on the food industry to ensure that healthier food is promoted in the same way as less healthy food and is just as available on the high street: ''Companies are doing something by reformulating some of their products to reduce salt, sugar and fat but an awful lot more could be done.'' She says while the Government is much more interested in personal responsibility ''...I would argue that a lot of the time people are not able to make healthy choices.'' Many people buy sandwiches for lunch but how many shops make it clear exactly what goes into the sandwich. ''This is another wake-up call, let's hope somebody takes some notice,'' she adds.

Dr Amelia Lake is a lecturer in knowledge exchange in public health in the School of Medicine and Health and a dietician and registered public health nutritionist.

Reproduced with permission from the Northern Echo.