If you live in England you’ve no doubt seen the massive adverts dotted around that state ‘Obesity is a cause of cancer’. The adverts are for Cancer Research UK and are designed to look like traditional cigarette packets to hammer home their point that fatness is bad for you. This isn’t the first time they’ve done this, either – last year similar adverts popped up and were met with a huge backlash.
Here are five points regarding those adverts and the science behind them.
Image description: Cancer Research UK’s anti-fat advert from last year, shown here in a subway station. It reads ‘OB_S__Y – Guess what is the biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking.’
No. 1: The Advert Was Paid For By A Weight Loss Company
UK diet company Slimming World has donated £14,000,000 to Cancer Research UK over six years, and is listed on their website as a corporate partner. With this in mind it’s probably no surprise that Cancer Research wants a slimmer world.
It’s also worth pointing out that yo-yo dieting is linked to cancer and other illnesses; that all diets are yo-yo diets, because dieting doesn’t lead to prolonged weight loss and it’s statistically inevitable that you’ll gain back your original weight, plus extra, after dieting; and that diet companies like Slimming World wouldn’t be making millions of pounds if dieting actually worked, because you’d go a few times and then never need to come back and give them more money. About 25% of people are dieting at any given time, though, mostly not for the first time. Funny how all that works.
Image description: A screenshot from the Cancer Research UK website shows Slimming World as their ‘corporate partner’. The text notes that Cancer Research UK is ‘proud to call Slimming World our partner’ with ‘£14m’ donated to them by ‘Consultants, members and head office employees’.
No. 2: There’s No Evidence That Fatness Causes Cancer
There’s no evidence to support the main claim of the advert. Evidence so far shows that there’s a correlative link between the odds of developing some kinds of cancer if you’re fat. Correlation is not causation, though, so all this shows is that, if you’re a certain type of fat person, you might be more likely to get certain kinds of cancer – there’s no evidence to show one causes the other.
There’s also a similar correlative effect between other personal attributes and an increased risk of experiencing poor health, including developing certain cancers, for tall people, Black people, women, the elderly, and poor people. These, like fatness, are all complex and long-term factors, but nobody seems to be telling tall people to put work into being shorter so they can avoid disease.
There’s even evidence to show that fatness can protect against certain kinds of cancer, like breast cancer, when other health factors are taken into account.
Image description: It’s the classic meme format of Sean Bean as Boromir. This time, he’s saying ‘One does not simply imply causation from correlation.’
No. 3: Shaming People Doesn’t Aid Weight Loss…
Shaming fat people into losing weight makes them fatter. Fatness aside, shaming people about their bodies in any derogatory way leads to stress, depression, and yo-yo dieting which all have a correlation with cancer. So, if you’re worried that fat people are more likely to get cancer, the worst thing you can probably do is put up giant shaming posters in public.
Image description: The Cancer Research UK adverts from this year, which both say ‘OBESITY IS A CAUSE OF CANCER TOO’, have been graffitied. The graffiti reads ‘Weight stigma causes shame, not health’; ‘Anti-fat bias’; and ‘Fatphobia’.
No. 4: …Because Literally Nothing Aids Weight Loss
I touched on this above but, just to hammer it home – dieting doesn’t work. It just doesn’t. Your body isn’t built that way and it relies on keeping things the same as much as it can, to the point that it changes metabolically and cognitively in order to return to where it was after weight loss. It’s not about self-control, or hard work, or commitment. It’s just the way it is.
Fat people are often metabolically healthy without weight loss, and gaining weight doesn’t always affect metabolical health, so the fact that most fat people can’t lose weight is no big loss.
Image description: Several Olympic athletes are stood next to each other in athletic poses. They are a range of body sizes from fat to thin.
No. 5: Anti-Fatness, On The Other Hand, Might Give You Cancer
Again, I’ve touched on this several times, but it’s such a salient point that it deserves to be its own point. Putting giant billboards and bus-stop posters up shaming fatness may actually be giving people an increased risk of developing certain cancers. Fatmisia and it’s associated discrimination can certainly increase the risk of mortality, including by cancer, which is a sobering idea when medical professionals don’t treat fat people as well as they treat thin people. Creating billboards comparing fat people to smokers and saying they’re going to die if they don’t change their bodies in physiologically impossible ways is, at best, not helping and, at worst, killing people.
Good job, Cancer Research UK. Good job.