Nutrition and cancer around the world

The World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) international conference is underway at the Royal College of Physicians in London.

It got off to a great start with a fascinating talk by Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition for Health and Development at the World Health Organization.

Much of the focus on cancer prevention is on high income countries, but Dr Branca highlighted the fact that it is also an important issue in the developing world.

According to Dr Branca, cancer now accounts for a large enough share of premature deaths and poverty in all areas of the world to merit an urgent and coordinated public policy response.

He said that about 1.7 million premature deaths from cancer in developing countries could be prevented every year.

When you hear about the numbers, it really brings home the scale of the challenge, which is something we issued a press release about yesterday.

Dr Branca also gave some insights into the global picture. He showed that patterns for many of the lifestyle factors that affect cancer risk are, unfortunately, moving in the wrong direction.

For example, about 60 per cent of the world population is insufficiently active and about 60 to 70 per cent of people are not eating the recommended five portions of fruits and vegetables a day.

Something that surprised me about his talk was that Africa and South East Asia have especially high proportions of people who do not eat enough fruits and vegetables.

Dr Branca linked the low availability of fresh fruit in Sub-Saharan Africa in particular to the fact that increasing amounts are being exported to the European Union.

The proportion of energy we get from animal foods has also increased over the last 30 years. In China, in particular, the increase has been massive.

But while there are certainly big challenges in terms of global cancer prevention, Dr Branca highlighted the fact that there are positives.

He pointed to specific examples, including the joined-up approach to public health in Slovenia and initiatives in Fiji, to show that policies are being introduced that can make a positive difference.

And I wasn’t aware that the United Nations plans to hold a summit on non-communicable disease in New York next September.

This shows, I think, that this issue is being taken seriously at the highest level and I hope the summit will take the findings of our Policy Report into account.

Hopefully, I’ve given a flavour of Dr Branca’s talk, which was full of interesting information and insights.

As an opening speaker, he certainly set the bar high for the next two days.

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