Preventing Cancer by Taking Steps to Reduce Childhood Obesity
Last month the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Surgeon General Dr. Regina Benjamin, and First Lady Michelle Obama announced a new national effort to prevent childhood obesity and called for a focus on healthy choices, particularly better nutrition and increased physical activity.
On February 9, Mrs. Obama launched the Let’s Move campaign to promote both policy change and individual behavior change to prevent obesity. The campaign includes four core areas: healthy choices, healthier schools, physical activity, and accessible and affordable healthy food. Let’s Move public service announcements and comments from Mrs. Obama are available on the campaign’s YouTube channel.
This initiative comes at a time when obesity among Americans, and especially American children, is on the rise. Between 1980 and 2004, the prevalence of obesity more than doubled among adults and tripled among children and adolescents. Today, nearly one-third of all children in the United States are overweight or obese.
Obesity is a well-established risk factor for chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Research indicates that obesity and physical inactivity may account for 25 to 30 percent of several major cancers, including those of the colon, breast (postmenopausal), endometrium, kidney, and esophagus. But there is also evidence that regular physical activity may lower the risk of colon and breast cancers.
Preventing and reducing obesity is an important cancer prevention strategy, said Dr. Rachel Ballard-Barbash, associate director of the Applied Research Program in NCI’s Division of Cancer Control and Population Sciences. “Research suggests that obesity at multiple periods throughout life may increase cancer risk and worsen prognosis,” she said. “Further, evidence suggests that if overweight or obesity persists from childhood through teenage years, the risk of obesity during adulthood is greater. We also know that efforts to prevent obesity in children must involve their families and communities. Therefore, obesity prevention efforts, such as the Let’s Move campaign, may be important not just to help control childhood obesity, but it may also reduce cancer-related morbidity and mortality in the United States.”
Given these associations, NCI investigators continue to work closely with colleagues across NIH and HHS to support research aimed at reducing childhood obesity. NCI is a member of the National Collaborative on Childhood Obesity Research (NCCOR), a joint effort by the CDC, NIH, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and U.S. Department of Agriculture, and recently issued program announcements of funding available for obesity policy research, including an announcement specifically addressing school nutrition and physical activity policies.
This research will evaluate how policies influence school nutrition and physical activity environments and students’ behavior in these areas, and it will also examine the policy implementation process and how school policies may affect the home and community environments with regard to nutrition, physical activity, and body weight.
“Policies to combat obesity are being implemented across the Unites States, yet few are being evaluated rigorously,” said Dr. Ballard-Barbash. “These two program announcements will fund urgently needed research on the impact of these policies on diet, physical activity, and weight-related behaviors.”
Dr. Ballard-Barbash, who serves as an NIH representative on the HHS Interagency Working Group on Obesity Research, recognizes a critical role for this research in supporting the goals of the Let’s Move campaign. “The initiative addresses childhood obesity by focusing on tools for families and providing supportive school and community environments,” she said. “The recent NCI funding announcements align perfectly by sponsoring research that will empower families and communities to create healthy environments.”
—Holly Aprea Gibbons