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How to solve a problem like obesity . . .

Wednesday 17 August, 2011 by Laura

When the going gets tough we can often find ourselves looking for the easy way out. Like when the cross trainer at the gym throws in a virtual hill that's just too steep so you press stop, or a hard day ends with a large glass of red wine, and when heartbreak leads you to the bottom of a tub of ice-cream.

I've picked these examples for a simple reason - lack of exercise, drinking alcohol and eating high sugar, high fat foods can all contribute to weight gain.

Recently Professor Joseph Proietto, who runs a weight-control clinic at the Austin Hospital, generated a lot of attention about obesity as a result of his opinion piece in the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA).

In the article Proietto discusses how an obese person's body becomes programmed to regain weight that is lost, and that weight loss is unlikely to be sustained over the long-term. He also suggests that when it comes to effective long-term weight loss for many who are already obese, lasting results are only likely following bariatric surgery. Proietto proposes that bariatric surgery should be more available for obese patients as part of a comprehensive weight loss service in public hospitals; but only when behavioural interventions fail.

His opinion piece led to further articles and sensationalist newspaper headlines, such as News Limited's ‘Healthy eating and exercise a waste of time, according to obesity expert'.

The way the story was reported sent out some confusing messages. People who are already obese might interpret this as: there is no point trying to eat healthily and be active, as any weight they lose they will ultimately regain.

However, eating well and exercising are essential for good health, irrespective of whether people achieve sustained weight loss. It must also be recognised that bariatric surgery is risky and might not be suitable for everybody. It may be a viable last-resort solution for some of the long-term obese but it's not a feasible approach for addressing the high levels of obesity across the population. This issue highlights the difficulties involved in managing obesity, and the importance of preventing weight gain in the first place.

Cancer Council Victoria, through its partnership with the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) supports policies that encourage healthy eating and active lifestyles by creating a supportive environment. When it comes to the issue of obesity - an once of prevention really is worth a pound of cure.

Cancer Council Victoria is active in obesity prevention because of the link between obesity and cancer. Obesity is a risk factor for a range of cancers, including cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, colorectum, endometrium, kidney and breast (in postmenopausal women).

The OPC is calling for policy and regulatory changes to tackle the key drivers of obesity, such as restricting junk-food marketing to children, implementing traffic-light labeling and taxing unhealthy foods and drinks, while subsidising healthy choices. As OPC senior policy advisor and wordsmith Jane Martin said in the Herald Sun, it's better to put a fence at the top of the cliff than an ambulance at the bottom.

Cancer Council Victoria and the OPC recognise that there is no magic bullet; we need a comprehensive multi-strategic approach to address an issue as complex as obesity. Governments have an important role in implementing policies that support people to eat healthily and be active, rather than allowing practices to continue which undermine them.

Importantly, one third of cancers can be prevented through modifying aspects of lifestyle such as diet, alcohol and physical activity. So, move away from the ice-cream, put down the glass of wine, stick on the Rocky theme tune and get moving!

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