Obesity and cancer FAQs

1: Why is Cancer Council Victoria doing this campaign?

There is strong evidence that shows being above a healthy weight can increase your risk of some cancers

  • Being above a healthy weight, more specifically increased body fat and visceral fat (the fat around our middle), increases your risk of 13 types of cancer 1 as well as a number of other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • After smoking and UV (sun damage), the next leading preventable risk factors for cancer in Australia are poor diet, inadequate exercise and being above a healthy weight. 1
  • Most Australians (63%) are overweight or obese and over a quarter of children (27%) are above their healthy weight. 2 If current trends continue, it's expected that 83% of men and 75% of women over 20 will be above a healthy weight by 2025. 3
  • As more of the population become above a healthy weight the numbers of cancer cases attributable to obesity is likely to rise. 4
  • There is strong evidence that greater body fatness increases the risk of many cancers, and this evidence has strengthened over the last decade. 5
  • The World Cancer Research Fund, World Health Organization, International Agency for Research on Cancer and Cancer Council all recognise that being above a healthy weight can increase your risk of certain cancers.
  • The International Agency for Research conducted a report based on more than 1000 studies and concluded that increased body fatness can increase the risk of 13 types of cancer.
  • Unhealthy diets (11%) and high BMI (body mass index) (9%) are the highest contributing risk factors to the burden of disease in Australia. 6

Low awareness of the link between being above a healthy weight and increased cancer risk

  • We know that awareness of the link between being above a healthy weight and increased cancer risk is low. It is our duty to inform people of this link.
  • Being above a healthy weight, poor diet and insufficient exercise are competing with tobacco and UV exposure as leading causes of preventable cancers in Australia. 1
  • Less than half (40%) of Australians are aware of the obesity-cancer risk link 7 (compared to 98-99% of Australians being aware of the obesity diabetes/cardiovascular disease link. 8

Cancer Council is committed to obesity prevention

  • Our environments don’t make it easy to eat well and stay at a healthy weight. By raising awareness and lobbying for change we continue to push government and industry to ensure our environments enable us to make healthy choices. Cancer Council Victoria is involved in several initiatives aimed at reducing obesity including the  Obesity Policy CoalitionRethink Sugary DrinkLiveLighter and the  Achievement Program

How many cancer cases in Australia are related to obesity?

  • It is estimated in Australia in 2010, that almost 4000 cancers cases were attributable to being above a healthy weight (obesity). 1
  • The list of cancer cases attributable to being above a healthy weight (overweight and obesity) is likely to grow over time as the prevalence of obesity continues to increase . 4

2. The link between higher body weight and increased cancer risk

What is the link between being above a healthy weight and increased cancer risk?

  • Body fat doesn’t just sit there doing nothing. Fat has many useful functions and produces chemicals, proteins and hormones which travel around our bodies.
  • The link between obesity and cancer is complex however many factors that can be altered with higher levels of body fat (overweight and obesity) including increased inflammation and increased levels of endocrine hormones and growth factors. 5 These changes are thought to alter how the cells in your body divide which may increase your risk of some cancers.
  • Visceral fat around our waist and organs is more dangerous and can increase your risk of some cancers and other chronic diseases.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer and World Cancer Research Fund have concluded that there is a causal association between high body mass index (BMI) and some cancers. 4

3. Campaign impact

How are you making sure this campaign is constructive?

  • This campaign focuses on the medical consequences of being above a healthy weight.
  • We have taken care to create an ad that focuses on real health consequences that affect many Australians.
  • This campaign has taken care to: promote health behaviours, be respectful to individuals above a healthy weight and to use appropriate language.
  • This campaign has taken care not to: use headless images of people above a healthy weight, use derogatory language, blame the individual or communicate weight-based stereotypes.
  • Similar campaigns have shown that dietary changes resulted in people drinking less sugary drinks and drinking more water. 9

Why is the TV ad so graphic?

  • Research tells us that ads that are more graphic and health consequence-based are more likely to get the greatest response. This means greater potential for more people to see their health as important enough to make positive and sustainable lifestyle choices. 11
  • We need to make a strong impression to cut-through the multitude of messages in the community; including the barrage of advertising from the junk food industry.
  • Cancer Council always conducts research before committing to an advertising campaign. Given the sensitive nature of this issue, we tested the concept with a wide range of people from different genders, ages and backgrounds.
  • Participants in focus testing favoured this ad. They found it more believable, felt it increased personal susceptibility and were more motivated to change behaviours. 
  • Other campaigns such as road safety and tobacco have demonstrated that graphic advertising can be very effective in stimulating behaviour change.
  • Previous campaigns (of a similar nature) have demonstrated a reduction of 9% in sugary drink consumption amongst regular soft drink consuming Victorian adults during the period of the paid campaign on sugary drinks (31% of the population pre-campaign to 22% post-campaign). 9

Why aren't you focussing on exercise?

  • Campaigns that just emphasise the focus on being active are great, however obesity is a complex issue and we need a mix of campaigns and a comprehensive approach to address it effectively.
  • This campaign does focus on a single, achievable behaviour – that is reducing sugary drink consumption.
  • As a cancer prevention organisation, it is our responsibility to inform consumers of the link between being above a healthy weight and increased cancer risk.
  • Our research shows that these sorts of campaigns are very effective at motivating the general population to change their behaviours.
  • We live in an obesogenic environment – this is why we need many different approaches to address increasing rates of obesity.
  • Our campaign has a host of resources and supports that promote healthier behaviours. For example, our website cancervic.org.au/healthyweight has videos, animations, recipes, meal and activity trackers and fact sheets to assist people to achieve a healthier lifestyle.

4. Sugary drinks/Sugar and cancer

Why are you just focussing on sugary drinks?

  • Our research tells us that people respond better with a clear and singular message. 10
  • Sugary drinks are the most significant contributor of added sugar in Australian's diets. 11 They are high in calories and offer no nutritional benefit.
  • There is evidence that a high intake of sugary drinks is associated with an increase in body weight and obesity. 12, 13
  • Too many sugary drinks can lead to toxic fat and increase your risk of 13 cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.
  • The World Health Organization, World Cancer Research Fund and the Australian Dietary Guidelines all recommend that sugary drink consumption be restricted or avoided altogether. 5, 14
  • Water is the best choice to stay hydrated.
  • Cutting back on sugary drinks can help reduce weight gain and reduce the amount of toxic fat around your vital organs.
  • For more information on better drink alternatives visit: LiveLighter.com.au or www.rethinksugarydrink.org.au

Is it okay to have ‘diet’ drinks instead?

  • Although diet drink options do not contain the same level of kilojoules as sugar-sweetened versions, water or low-fat milk are healthier options.
  • Diet soft drinks have been associated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity. 15, 16
  • Diet versions of soft drinks are acidic and can also contribute to dental erosion 17 (wearing away of the tooth enamel).

What should people do instead of drink sugary drinks?

  • Water is always the best choice.
  • Visit LiveLighter.com.au for alternative strategies.
  • Try swapping sugary drinks for herbal teas, soda water or home-made fruit infused water.

Are sugary drinks as harmful as tobacco?

  • No, smoking carries a much higher risk of cancer and is still the most important preventable cause of cancer in Australia.
  • Like smoking, poor diet, inadequate physical activity and being above a healthy weight can increase your risk of cancer.
  • Just as there’s no need to smoke, there’s no need to drink soft drinks and other sugary drinks.
  • The excess energy from the sugar in these drinks can turn to toxic fat and increase your risk of type 2 diabetes, heart and kidney disease, stroke and some cancers.
  • When it comes to marketing, sugary drink companies are behaving in the same way as the tobacco industry did. Like tobacco companies, the industry markets to young people to create brand loyalty.

What should be done about our sugary drink problem?

  • A health levy on sugary drinks is one of the policy tools needed to help address the growing impact of weight and diet-related health problems in Australia.
  • A 20% health levy on sugary drinks can help deter people from these cheap and very unhealthy drinks.
  • It would also see a significant reduction in numbers of cases of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and stroke and would save the healthcare systems hundreds of millions of dollars. 18

Sugar and cancer: what is the link?

  • Sugar is not a carcinogenic (cancer-causing) substance. However, over-consumption of sugar, particularly added sugars in processed beverages and foods, can contribute to obesity which is an important risk factor for cancer. 19
  • It is not recommended to cut out all sugar or all carbohydrate foods. 19
  • Cancer Council supports the Australian Dietary Guidelines that recommend people enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from the five food groups every day. 19
  • It is also recommended that adults and children limit intake of foods containing added sugars such as confectionery, biscuits, cakes, sugar-sweetened soft drinks and cordials, fruit drinks, vitamin waters, energy and sports drinks. 19

5. Lifestyle recommendations

Lifestyle recommendations

  • If you are currently at a healthy weight, follow a healthy diet, exercise and try to avoid gaining weight.
  • If you are above a healthy weight, you can reduce your risk by eating a healthy diet, exercising and avoiding gaining more weight.
  • Cancer risk can be reduced through a healthy diet and exercise, even if you are overweight and struggle to lose weight.
  • A healthy diet is a diet rich in vegetables, fruit, wholegrains and legumes.
  • Fast foods, highly processed foods and foods high in added sugar are unhealthy for our bodies and should be limited, or avoided altogether.
  • Sugary drinks can contribute to weight gain and should be limited, or avoided all together.
  • One third of cancers can be prevented. 20 It is important to consider all preventative behaviours like screening for cancer, smoking, alcohol, UV radiation, diet, exercise and obesity.
  • Making small and sustainable changes to your lifestyle can have a big impact on your health.

Is obesity worse than smoking?

  • No, smoking carries a much higher risk of cancer and is still the most important preventable cause of cancer in Australia.
  • Like smoking, poor diet, inadequate physical inactivity and being above a healthy weight can increase your risk of cancer.
  • Currently 63% of adults and 27% of children are either overweight or obese 2 , therefore it’s an important risk factor to address.

6. What if I have cancer?

What does this campaign mean for me if I have cancer?

  • It is important to note that messages aimed at preventing cancer aren’t always the same for those going through or recovering from cancer treatment.
  • This campaign is designed to prevent obesity-related cancers. This means some of the diet and lifestyle messages may not be appropriate for those experiencing cancer.
  • If you or a loved one is living with cancer you can find out more about diet and exercise during and after treatment at the Cancer Council Victoria.
  • Cancer Council Victoria offers a range of services to support people affected by cancer, including their family, friends and carers.
  • You can visit the  website, contact an experienced cancer nurse online or call the Information and Support line on 13 11 20 or talk to your treating doctor.

Nutrition and cancer

  • There is no evidence that consuming sugar makes cancer cells grow faster or causes cancer. 19
  • If you have cancer, your body may lose weight without trying. This can be detrimental to your treatment outcomes. Losing weight if you have cancer will not 'starve' cancer cells.  For the best advice, talk to your treating health professional or contact the Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Did I get cancer because I was above a healthy weight?

  • At Cancer Council Victoria we aim to provide information to as many members of the public as possible on ways in which people can reduce the risk of some cancers that are known to be associated with lifestyle factors such as poor diet, smoking and sun exposure.
  • We hope that by putting these messages out into the community we can educate people on ways we can all live a healthy life to help decrease not only our risk of some cancers, but also many other common health conditions in our society, such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • By no means would we want people who have been diagnosed with cancer to feel that they are somehow responsible for their diagnosis.
  • It’s important to know that there are many factors – both preventable and non-preventable – that can cause cancer.
  • People can get cancer for a variety of reasons. It is difficult to say why exactly you may have got cancer.
  • If you need to talk to someone about this or have any other questions you can visit the Cancer Council  website, contact an experienced cancer nurse online or call the Information and Support line on 13 11 20 or talk to your treating doctor.

I’m above a healthy weight. Does this mean I may get cancer?

  • Being above a healthy weight does not mean you will get cancer.
  • There are many preventative factors that make up your individual risk of getting cancer like smoking, sun protection, alcohol, diet, physical activity and screening for cancer. Being above a healthy weight is just one of these risk factors.
  • There are also non-preventative factors like getting older, genetics, family history and past health behaviours.
  •  If you are overweight focus on other preventative factors – eat a healthy diet, exercise and try to avoid extra weight gain.

7. Policy and broader actions of Cancer Council Victoria

What is Cancer Council Victoria doing to reduce obesity rates in Victoria?

  • Our environments don’t make it easy to eat well and stay at a healthy weight. By raising awareness and lobbying for change we continue to push government and industry to ensure our environments enable us to make healthy choices. Cancer Council Victoria is a partner of the Obesity Policy Coalition that advocates for broader political and regulatory changes to reduce obesity rates at a local, state and national level.
  • Cancer Council Victoria administers a public health education program ( LiveLighter) which encourages Victorians to lead healthier lives by changing what they eat and drink, and being more active.
  • LiveLighter aims to encourage public debate about obesity and the need for changes in the community to support healthy eating and physical activity and make sure the healthy choice is also the easy choice.
  • Cancer Council Victoria is a partner of Rethink Sugary Drink – an alliance of leading health organisations that aim to increase awareness of the sugar content in sugary drinks and to encourage government, communities, schools and healthcare settings to take steps to decrease sugary drinks availability.
  • Cancer Council Victoria also houses the Achievement Program: an evidence-based framework to support whole-organisation health and wellbeing approaches for early childhood services, schools and workplaces.

What needs to be done to prevent obesity?

  • A 20% health levy on sugary drinks can help deter people from these cheap and very unhealthy drinks and help recover some of the significant costs associated with obesity and the increasing burden this puts on our public health care system.
  • A public education campaign supported by Australian governments to highlight the health impacts of regular sugary drink consumption.
  • Restrictions by Australian federal and state and territory governments to reduce children's exposure to marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages, including through schools and children's sports, events and activities
  • Comprehensive mandatory restrictions by state governments on the sale of sugary drinks (and increased availability of free water) in schools, government institutions, children's sports and places frequented by children.
  • Development of policies by state and local governments to reduce the availability of sugar-sweetened beverages in workplaces, government institutions, health care settings, sport and recreation facilities and other public places.

8. Support for disordered eating

Information about eating disorders

If you suspect you or a friend or family member is experiencing disordered eating you can get more support and information at Eating Disorders Victoria.

Support line: 1300 550 236

www.eatingdisorders.org.au

Fact sheet on fad diets and disordered eating 

9. Mental health and weight

  • We acknowledge that those experiencing depression or anxiety may experience changes in their weight (either weight gain or weight loss) and that sometimes it isn’t always easy to eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly or manage your weight.
  • If you are experiencing a mental health condition and need some extra support we would encourage you contact your doctor or contact Beyond Blue 1300 224 636.
  • Good nutrition is important for everybody.
  • A good quality diet with lots of fruits and vegetables, wholegrains and healthy fats can help with weight management and can sometimes assist with depression and anxiety symptoms.
  • Diets higher in processed 'junk' foods tend to be higher in energy and lower in nutrients. They can sometimes contribute to extra weight gain and sometimes make depression and anxiety symptoms worse. For more information about how to manage a healthy lifestyle with a mental health condition visit www.beyondblue.org.au
  • For tips on staying well with a mental health condition you can access further information at www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/staying-well

10. Complaints management

Complaints or enquiries can be sent to healthyweight@cancervic.org.au or call 9514 6834.

References

1. Whiteman D, Webb P, Green A, Neale R, Fritschi L, Bain C, Parkin M, Wilson L, Olsen C, Nagle C, Pandeya N, Jordan S, Antonosson A, Kendall B, Hughes M, Miura K, Carey R. Cancers in Australia in 2010 attributable to modifiable factors: summary and conclusions. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 2015. 39(5): 477–84.

2. AIHW, A picture of overweight and obesity in Australia. , 2017: Canberra.

3. Haby M, Marwick A, Peeters A, Shaw A, Vos T. Future predictions of BMI and overweight prevalence in Australia 2005-2025. Health promotion international 2012. 27(2): 250–60.

4. Pearson-Stuttard J, Zhou B, Kontis V, Bentham J, Gunter M, Ezzati M. Worldwide burden of cancer attributable to diabetes and high body-mass index: a comparative risk assessment. The Lancet 2018. 6: 6–15.

5. Diet, Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer: a Global Perspective, 2018, The World Cancer Reserach Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research.: Washington.

6. Global Burden of Disease Country profile Australia, 2013, Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation Seattle (WA, USA).

7. Watson W, Weber M, Hughes C, Wellard L, Chapman K. Support for food policy initiatives is associated with knowledge of obesity-related cancer risk factors. Public Health Research and Practice 2017. 27(5): 1–8.

8. Morley B, Dixon H, Wakefield M, Niven P. Evaluation of the LiveLighter Campaign: Topline Findings July to October 2014, 2015, Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer, Cancer Council Victoria: Melbourne.

9. Morely B, et al. Population based evaluation of the "LiveLighter" healthy weight and lifestyle mass media camapign. Health education research, 2016. 31(2): 121–35.

10. Dixon H, et al. Finding the keys to successful adult-targeted advertisment on obesity prevention BMC Public Health 2015. 15(1): 804.

11. ABS, Australian Health Survey: Consumption of Added Sugars, 2011–12, 2017: Canberra.

12. Luger M, et al. Sugar-sweetened beverages and weight gain in children and adults: A systematic review from 2013–2015 and a comparison with previous studies Obesity Facts: The European Journal of Obesity 2017. 10: 674–93.

13. Frank B. Resolved: There is sufficient scientific evidence that decreasing sugar-sweetended beverage consumption will reduce the prevalance of obesity and obesity related diseases. Obesity reviews, 2013. 14(8): 606–19.

14. Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases. 2003, World Health Organisation: Geneva. p.68.

15. Nettleton JA, et al. Diet Soda Intake and Risk of Incident Metabolic Syndrome and Type 2 Diabetes in the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA). Diabetes Care, 2009. 32(4): 688–94.

16. Chia CW, et al. Chronic Low-Calorie Sweetener Use and Risk of Abdominal Obesity among Older Adults: A Cohort Study. PLOS One, 2016. 11(11): p. e0167241.

17. Khamverdi Z, et al. Effect of a Common Diet and Regular Beverage on Enamel Erosion in Various Temperatures: An In-Vitro Study. Journal of Dentistry (Tehran, Iran), 2013. 10(5): 411–6.

18. Veerman J, et al. The Impact of a tax on sugar sweetened beverage on health and health care costs: a modelling study. PLOS One 2016. 10(1371).

19. Sugar and cancer risk 2015; Available from: https://wiki.cancer.org.au/policy/Obesity/Sugar_and_cancer.

20. Wilson L, et al. How many cancer cases and deaths are potentially preventable? estimate for Australia in 2013. International Journal of Cancer 2017. 142(4): 691–701.