Obesity will surpass tobacco as the leading cause of cancer “within a couple years,” officials from the American Society of Clinical Oncology recently announced.
But this news may come as a surprise to many people: according to a phone survey conducted by the Associated Press and NORC Center, fewer than 10 percent of Americans know that a link between excess weight and cancer exists.
“It’s pretty rare to find someone who doesn’t know the association of tobacco with cancer,” Dr. Clifford Hudis, an author of the policy statement and chief of breast cancer medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, told Dallas News. “If you ask the general population if there’s a relationship between obesity and cancer, the general answer is no.”
Rates of obesity in the United States have more than doubled since the 1970s. Today, more than 1 out of 3 Americans carry excess body fat, according to data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That figure translates into nearly 1 in 5 cancer deaths and $50 billion in health care spending. Previous research by ASCO has also linked obesity to aggressive breast cancer in postmenopausal women, prostate cancer in older men, and a host of other ailments.
In recent years, conversations about excess weight have focused on lifestyle and diet choices. Experts tout the importance of maintaining a balanced diet that includes bread, fruits and vegetables, dairy, meat, and fish and engaging in physical activity. Studies have shown that reducing sodium intake by 1,200 mg trims down waistlines and cuts annual medical costs by $20 billion.
Many people, however, don’t heed the words of wisdom. An August Gallup poll found that more than 3 out of 4 Americans consume high-calorie, high-sodium fast food at least monthly, with half of that group saying they eat it weekly. Plus, Americans also don’t get much time outside or on the treadmill. Less than 5 percent of adults take part in 30 minutes of daily physical activity, according to data compiled by the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Only six states — including Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, and New York — require physical education for children in every grade.
But shaving the pounds off may be easier said than done for many people — especially African Americans and Latinos, many of whom live in low-income communities and don’t have the resources they need to make long-term lifestyle changes.
Today, more than 49 million Americans live in areas with high food insecurity, where the nearest grocery store is more than a mile away. Even with funds from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program at their disposal, people living in low-income communities don’t enjoy high quality produce as much as their wealthier counterparts. According to a study published in September, the gap in quality of food between well-to-do and low-income people doubled between 2000 and 2010, a period during which the American Recession took place.
In recent years, members of the public health community have also found evidence suggesting that the sedentary lifestyle many low-income people lead could be connected to unsafe neighborhood conditions, inadequate access to parks and recreation centers, and long distances to important locations.
“Where you live in the United States shouldn’t determine how long and how healthy you live — but it does, far more than it should,” CDC Director Tom Frieden said in July when the federal agency released a study that showed lower life expectancy among people burdened with disproportionate crime, poverty, limited health care, and poor schools. Frieden used the study as an opportunity to discuss glaring socioeconomic inequalities that will undermine efforts to increase eat healthy and exercise among all Americans.
Frieden added: “Not only do people in certain states and African-Americans live shorter lives, they also live a greater proportion of their last years in poor health. It will be important moving forward to support prevention programs that make it easier for people to be healthy no matter where they live.”