• Emma Green

Let’s talk about ‘obesity’ and health

Updated: Jul 8, 2019

If you’re in the UK you’ve probably seen the recent Cancer Research UK campaign claims that ‘obesity’ causes cancer and that the risk is comparable to that of smoking.

FYI I use inverted commas around obesity because the term and its derivation are hugely stigmatising.

Let’s talk facts. The media often reports relative rather than absolute risk, which can be misleading. For example, you might hear that something doubles your risk of a disease. That sounds scary but if the absolute risk is very low, it means very little. One of the largest studies to date reported the absolute risk of ‘obesity’ for cancer was 6%, in other words 94% of cancers have nothing to do with ‘obesity’. It’s also worth nothing that this isn’t causal evidence, as it is only an observational study. It also doesn’t mean that other factors, such as socioeconomic status and weight stigma are not partly or wholly responsible for the association. Weight stigma not only directly impacts health but also makes it harder to engage in health-promoting behaviours and results in poorer treatment from healthcare professionals. There is an assumption that losing weight lowers risk. However, this wrongly suggests that a person who has lost weight is comparable to a person who is naturally at a lower weight, which isn’t the case. There is no strong evidence that dieting works over the long term. Dieting is not a risk-free intervention either, it can result in negative psychological effects as seen first in the Minnesota Starvation experiment in the 1940s. It is also likely to lead to weight cycling, which is associated with negative health outcomes. Intuitive eating, a non-diet approach, is associated with multiple positive physical and mental health markers. We also know from Health At Every Size interventions that a person can improve their health by engaging in health-promoting behaviours, which have a positive impact in the absence of weight change.

Edit: A petition has now been launched calling for Cancer Research UK to halt their campaign and reframe their approach. You can sign it here.

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