Most Americans Unaware of Fat-Cancer Connection

And many underestimate their own weight, experts say

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By Meryl Hyman Harris
HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, May 22, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- More U.S. citizens know the correct number of judges on American Idol than know that being fat helps cause cancer.

According to a new poll of more than 2,000 adults for the American Cancer Society, just 8 percent were aware of the link between being overweight and cancer risk, but 65 percent knew how the popular TV show works.

Experts say the obesity-cancer connection needs a lot more press.

The problem "has to do with communication from the health profession, which includes us as registered dieticians," said David Grotto, a spokesman for the American Dietetic Association. "We need to do a better job of communicating the risk of obesity with many types of diseases."

And that's just what the ACS is attempting to do, said Marji McCullough, senior epidemiologist with the cancer society in Atlanta. Its survey and new Web site supports the society's new "Great American Eat Right Challenge," designed to help people make better diet and exercise choices and do what they can to live longer, better lives.

"Obesity is the second leading cause of premature and preventable death in the United States, second only to smoking ... Only in the last five years has it become more apparent to the public," McCullough said. "The ACS really wants to raise awareness about this."

There isn't yet a complete understanding of the role fat plays in cancer, but, among other things, it seems to be connected to the body's inability to use insulin.

"Being overweight can make you insulin-resistant," said McCullough. "And being overweight or obese can cause several different types of cancer, including breast cancer, aggressive prostate cancer, colorectal cancer, and endometrial, kidney, pancreas and esophagus cancer, as well as certain lymphomas."

Yet only 17 percent of the people in the survey knew their body mass index (BMI) -- a calculation of weight vs. height that's the best measure of just how overweight a person is. The new ACS Web site includes methods for determining this number (for reference, statistical obesity starts at a BMI of 30).

Grotto, who is also director of the nutrition program at the Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care in Evanston, Ill., said it's time people got a realistic appraisal of just how overweight they might be. He referred to recent research that found that people rate themselves just "overweight," when they are, in fact, statistically obese. And many of those who were overweight "thought they were just fine" weight-wise, he said.

The reason, according to Grotto: Over the years, Americans have started accepting that being larger is "normal." "It's been a slow but sure evolution," he said. "We've loosened the belt."

In the new ACS survey, 45 percent said they are overweight, while 58 percent said at least one of their family members is overweight. However, those numbers don't match up with the facts: According to the ACS, nearly two-thirds of Americans are overweight, and 30 percent are obese.

Living healthily and learning to eat right later in life does take determination, McCullough said.

The survey showed that more than half the survey respondents found certain foods irresistible. The leading cravings were: chocolate (20 percent); pizza, pasta, Italian food (14 percent); cookies, cakes, muffins (10 percent); hamburgers, beef, meat (9 percent); and fish, shellfish, seafood (9 percent).

"One of the things we want people to know is you don't have to cut out your favorite food," said McCullough. "But we encourage them to have them in smaller portions, less frequently."

More information

Visit the American Cancer Society for more on the Great American Eat Right Challenge.

SOURCES: Marji McCullough, Sc.D., R.D., senior epidemiologist and registered dietician, American Cancer Society, Atlanta; David Grotto, R.D., director, nutrition program, Block Center for Integrative Cancer Care, Evanston, Ill., and spokesman, American Dietetic Association; May 26, 2006, news release, American Cancer Society.

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