Monday, November 05, 2007

Cutting Cancer Risk, and Health Costs

It's the kind of news there ought to be more of ... by controlling lifestyle habits, we can prevent cancers from occurring by one third. This week's announcement of a study showing the relationship between weight and risk of cancer, is very positive for anyone, and positive for governments' budgets.

It had been suspected that too much fat in our foods and bodies, too much alcohol, and not enough exercise could lead to a higher risk of cancer developing. This study (here's a related CBC video interview), is significant. A team of nine independent scientists from around the world, analyzed 7000 other related studies, over a period of five years - very comprehensive.

The main findings in the study were:
  • excess weight increases the risk of cancer
  • the consumption of alcohol, red meat and processed meat also elevates cancer risk.
Specifically the report recommends:
  • (Limiting intake of cooked red meat to about 500 grams (1.1 lbs) per week)
  • Limiting intake of high-fat and sugar-rich foods that are low in fibre, including most fast food
  • Avoiding completely bacon, ham, sausage and luncheon meats
  • Limiting alcohol to no more than two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women.
  • Limiting consumption of salt
  • Eating mostly foods of plant origin
  • Being physically active every day
  • Breastfeeding
The study had new recommendations for body mass index (BMI).
The BMI is an indirect measure of body composition, based on your height and weight.

It was surprising. According to one of the lead scientists, Dr. Phillip James, the leaner the person, the better (with limitations). His suggested weight to height ratio may seem alarming to many people. As Peter Mansbridge pointed out to him in an interview, people who appeared slim and healthy, were still over the suggested BMI number. Here is a tool to measure your own BMI. (This works in Firefox, and if it does not for IE, try this link: ) A normal BMI is between 18.5 - 24.9, i.e., the BMI with the least risk of developing cancer.

Another health news item that got wide attention in the past two weeks concerned sodium in food. A coalition of 17 health groups in Canada called for reduced sodium levels in packaged food.

(from CTV's web site) In a National Sodium Policy statement, the coalition urges the federal government to:

  • Set graduated targets for sodium levels according to food categories;
  • Monitor and report on progress by 2012 and 2016
  • Establish effective monitoring systems to track sodium levels in the diets of Canadians
  • Educate Canadians on the health risks of high dietary sodium and how to reduce consumption
  • Provide incentives to the food industry
  • Ensure health professionals understand the need to reduce dietary sodium and educate their membership about health risks and how to reduce intake

  • This is in the right direction. The story revealed that Canadians are getting far too much sodium in their diets. The recommended level for a person to get each day is no more than 1500 mg. Unfortunately, many get double that, many men, triple that. High sodium levels have been linked to coronary problems. If you don't already read food nutrition charts, it is truly worth your while to take a look at the next can of soup, pizza, beans, or any product. The sodium levels in some of these is already startingly high. A 240 ml can of Campbell's chicken soup has 890 mg of sodium - over half of the recommended amount.

    News items like the above are so welcome for the publics knowledge. More credible information like this on other foods, preservatives, colorants, and any dangerous ingredient needs to be repeated to the public. Changing dietary habits is not easy, and can take years for some to learn and make healthier lifestyle changes, so the health news and messages need to be promoted more, and continually over time.

    This will save lives, and save the troubled health care system millions. It's a win-win situation for people and government.

    There has been criticism from Canadian & American meat associations because of the potential affect the news could have on the beef, and pork industry. In the end, it will be peoples' deitary habits that determine how well any product sells. Things probably won't change much overnight for sales of these meats. In the future, however, meat producing companies may have to be content with lower sales at least domestically, but they can always look to exporting more internationally.

    For consumers, continue reading the nutrition charts on food products, get more knowledgeable about what's in processed foods, and what you're feeding your system. Is it good or harmful? Garbage in, problems later. There are 1000s of studies done every year on food effects, they may be commissioned by food companies themselves, or by an arbitrary health association, or by government. The study referenced in this post appears to be very credible, and a cut above the rest.

    The federal government in particular might want to consider putting more money into public service health announcements promoting healthy living, preventative lifestyles. The investment now, could very well save $100s of millions in the future.

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