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Scientists “always changing their minds” on cancer

25 May 2009

More than half of people in Britain think scientists are always changing their minds about what causes or prevents cancer, according to a new survey.

The YouGov survey of 2,404 people, commissioned by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF), found that 52 per cent of people believe scientists are always changing their minds and 27 per cent said that because health advice always seems to be changing, the best approach is to ignore it all and eat what you want.

This is despite the fact that most scientists agree about the steps people can take to reduce their cancer risk and that this advice has largely stayed the same for the last 10 years.

This advice is that about a third of the most common cancers could be prevented through eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. In terms of diet, scientists agree that eating plenty of fruits and vegetables and limiting intake of red and processed meat, salt and alcohol can reduce cancer risk.

Richard Evans, Head of Communications for WCRF, said: “It is a cause for concern if people are not listening to cancer prevention advice because they have the impression that scientists are always changing their minds.

“The fact is that WCRF and other cancer charities agree on the best ways of reducing cancer risk and this advice has stayed broadly the same for quite a long time. A decade ago, we were recommending that people eat a plant-based diet, be physically active and maintain a healthy weight and this is still the case today.

“It is true there have been some changes in that time. For example, the evidence linking body fat with cancer has become much stronger over the last 10 years and we now say that, after not smoking, maintaining a healthy weight is the most important thing you can do for cancer prevention. But the idea that the advice from scientists changes with the wind is just not right.

“The problem is that when people hear about a single study suggesting a particular food might be good for us, it is easy to assume scientists are now telling us to start eating it. With the large number of new studies being published, it is perhaps not surprising that people get the impression cancer prevention advice is always changing.

“But these single studies are usually only a single piece in a jigsaw and on their own are not strong enough evidence to make conclusions. Often, they will be useful in giving us a lead that is worth following up with more research but should not be used to form the basis of advice.

“This is why when people find out about new research, they should also be given information about whether the evidence is strong enough to justify making lifestyle changes off the back of it. The science community needs to work with the media to help make sure this happens.”

The YouGov survey also suggested older people are more cynical about cancer prevention advice. It found that 60 per cent of people aged 55 and over thought scientists are always changing their minds, compared to just 36 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds. It also found that 30 per cent of those aged 55 and over thought the best approach is to avoid health advice and eat what you want, compared to 19 per cent of people aged 18 to 24.

ENDS

For more information contact Richard Evans on 020 7343 4253.

Notes to editors:

  • All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,404 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 20th - 22nd April 2009. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
  • Policy and Action for Cancer Prevention, which was published in February, recommends the media should emphasise news, features and campaigns designed to promote public health and to prevent cancer, and put health coverage in context. The report can be downloaded at www.dietandcancereport.org

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About WCRF

World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) raises awareness that cancer is largely preventable and helps people make choices to reduce their chances of developing the disease.

This includes research into how cancer risk is related to diet, physical activity, and weight management, and education programmes that highlight the fact that about a third of cancers could be prevented through changes to lifestyle. For more information on the charity’s work, visit www.wcrf-uk.org

The WCRF report, called Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: a Global Perspective, was launched in November 2007 and is the most comprehensive report ever published on the link between cancer and lifestyle. For more information, visit www.dietandcancerreport.org

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