Awareness not enough to prevent obesity

Ten years of YouGov surveys run by World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) reveal that while awareness on the link between obesity and cancer is increasing, obesity rates still remain high in the UK.

10 June 2020

Every year since 2010, WCRF has been asking the nation what they think increases the risk of cancer; possible answers ranged from incorrect, such as stress and coffee, to correct answers, such as alcohol and obesity.

The biggest increase in awareness over ten years is the knowledge that processed meat can increase the risk of cancer, which has gone from 33 per cent ten years ago to 56 per cent in 2020 (an increase of 23 percentage points). However, there has also been a large increase in the number of people who know that overweight increases the risk of cancer (53 per cent in 2010 to 69 per cent in 2020), that not being physically active also increases the risk (40 per cent in 2010 to 53 per cent now) and that alcohol increases the risk (53 per cent in 2010 to 63 per cent in 2020) 1, 2.

Although awareness of the cancer risk of being overweight or obese is increasing, rates of overweight and obesity within the UK have not gone down. For example, overweight and obesity prevalence in adults in England has remained at 63% since 2010 3, 4. In fact, in 2010 obesity related hospital admissions in England were 142,219 5, and in 2018/2019 these cases increased six-fold to 876,000 6. This suggests that just knowing that being overweight or obese increases the risk of cancer is not enough for people to act to try to lose weight.

It has been reported that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wants to intervene to lower rates of obesity in the UK. These new figures support the idea that to do so, the government must make our environments healthier so that it is easier for people to make healthier choices, not just raise awareness of the health risks of obesity. This is more important than ever given how many diet-related health conditions are being linked to a worse COVID-19 infection outcome, including obesity.

Dr Giota Mitrou said:

These increases in awareness are extremely encouraging and show that people are changing their attitudes towards risk factors and cancer. However, we hope that eventually, the number of people aware of the link between diet and physical activity and cancer will be as high as awareness on smoking and cancer, which has been at around 89% for the last ten years.

Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, said:

These new figures from World Cancer Research Fund show that while people are now more aware of the links between obesity and cancer, rates of obesity have continued to rise. This clearly shows that awareness alone is not enough to help people reach a healthier weight. We strongly welcome a renewed drive on obesity from the government, but this should focus on shaping a healthier environment for everyone, building on effective measures such as the soft drinks industry levy which has led to significant reduction in sugar in drinks.

WCRF’s Weight Matters Guide

Around 40 per cent of cancers are preventable 7 – which is around 147,000 cases every year in the UK 8 – if everyone was healthier, and this includes not smoking, eating a healthy diet, being physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases the risk of at least 12 different types of cancer 9. While the government considers how best to intervene, WCRF has published a guide that helps people to spot how their environments nudge them towards unhealthy behaviours; Weight matters: keeping healthy in an unhealthy world.


Notes to editors

For more information and media enquiries contact Maxine Lenza, Senior Press and Communications Officer at WCRF, on 07717 131 883 or


1 YouGov 2020, figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size for the 2020 results was 2,032 adults and fieldwork was undertaken between 14–17 February 2020.

The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

2 YouGov 2010, figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size for the 2010 results was 2,023 adults and fieldwork was undertaken between 19–22 February 2010.

The surveys were carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

3 Health Survey for England, 2018, accessed 07/05/20:

4 Health Survey for England, 2010, accessed 07/05/20:

5 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet – England, 2011, accessed 07/05/20:

6 Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England, 2020. Accessed 07/05/20:

7 World Health Organization (WHO), Cancer Prevention, accessed 07/05/20.

8 World Cancer Research Fund, cancer statistics based on combined data from EnglandScotlandWalesand Northern Ireland, 2020.

9 WCRF’s research shows that overweight and obesity increase the risk of:

  • mouth, pharynx and larynx cancers
  • oesophageal cancer
  • stomach cancer
  • pancreatic cancer
  • gallbladder cancer
  • liver cancer
  • bowel cancer
  • breast cancer
  • ovarian cancer
  • womb cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • kidney cancer

About World Cancer Research Fund

World Cancer Research Fund is part of a network of cancer charities with a global reach, dedicated to the prevention and survival of cancer through a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and being more physically active. By funding and supporting research, developing policy guidance and providing health information, we ensure that people can make informed lifestyle choices to reduce their risk of developing a preventable cancer.

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