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Prevent cancer through healthy, active childhood

6 February 2009 -- On the occasion of World Cancer Day this week, this episode looks at how an active healthy childhood can prevent cancer later in life.

Transcript of the podcast

Veronica Riemer: You’re listening to the WHO podcast. My name is Veronica Riemer. In this episode number 58, we look at how an active healthy childhood can help to prevent cancer later in life.

Neils Shack: There is such a big range of sports in the world from team sports, football, hockey, up to individual sports -- in my case, snowboarding -- that everyone can find something interesting. And that would be healthy in the end for them.

Veronica Riemer: Sixteen-year-old Neils Shack is a student of the International School of Geneva and a competitive snowboarder. Leading a healthy lifestyle is important to him as it enables him to excel in his sport. He tells us how he persuades his friends to avoid unhealthy food and join him on the slopes or at the skate park.

Neils Shack: For food, I think that if no one tells you what's good for you, you will always go the easy route. In general, lots of children, when no one told them what was good or bad, they would go eat fast food. Because it's a very simple route, and oh, you feel good after you ate: oh, I will go home now all filled up. But they don't know that having a nice steak with some sauce is as fast, as simple, but maybe not as cheaper. But in the end you will eat much healthier.

Veronica Riemer: Neils is right. Children who are inactive don’t burn off enough energy and store up fat in their body. It is not unusual for some children to spend hours in front of a television or computer. They put on weight because high-calorie foods, such as fast food and sweets, are abundant, relatively cheap and heavily promoted, specifically at children. As these children grow up, they are more likely to be obese. This means a higher risk of heart attack and stroke, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer.

World Cancer Day this week is focusing on the need to encourage a healthy, active life in children in order to prevent cancer in their adulthood. Professor Christopher Wild, Director of the International Agency for Research on Cancer, explains why.

Prof Christopher Wild: IARC has accumulated considerable evidence that obesity and overweight are important risk factors for human cancer, particularly with respect to breast cancer in post-menopausal women and endometrial cancer, bowel cancer, oesophagus and kidney among others. For a number of these the effects are quite significant.

Obesity early in life really sets a pattern for weight later in life. So if you are heavy when you are young you are likely to be heavy when you are older and that's why it is so important to address obesity and overweight early in life and set that pattern for the rest of that individual's lifetime.

Veronica Riemer: So, what specific evidence is there to show the link between being overweight and cancer in young people?

Prof Christopher Wild: One recent study that has been published from Norway looked at the weight of adolescents and then their cancer risk later in life and reported that there was a two-fold increased risk of colon cancer in individuals that were overweight in their adolescent years. So this is really quite an important indication that the very early period of life is important in influencing risk later on.

Veronica Riemer: Fiona Ashead, Director of WHO's Department for Chronic Diseases and Health Promotion, talks about the obesity epidemic among children.

Fiona Ashead: Worldwide about 20 million children are overweight, which is a large number, and it puts it into perspective when you think about the European region where about a fifth of children, or 20%, are overweight or obese.

Veronica Riemer: Research shows that children are more likely to be obese if their parents are obese. Is this due to genetics?

Fiona Ashead: Genetics are a factor, but the predominant factor is really that children and their parents tend to share the same environment, they tend to eat the same food, and they tend to exercise the same level. So it is far more the factors in people's environment that influence the interaction between whether overweight parents have overweight children.

Veronica Riemer: And what can parents do to prevent their children from becoming obese?

Fiona Ashead: The key factors really are that obesity is about an imbalance between the calories you eat, the amount of energy and the amount of activity you perform. So for parents the advice is really two-fold: one part around diet and the other around physical activity.

For diet, it's about getting children to eat more healthily, to reduce for example very calorie-rich foods such as carbonated drinks and sweets. And, for activity, it's really about getting as active as possible, walking as much as possible, walking to school, cycling, those kinds of factors.

Veronica Riemer: That's all for this episode of the WHO podcast. Thanks for listening. If you have any comments on our podcast or have any suggestions for future health topics drop us a line. Our email address is

For the World Health Organization, this is Veronica Riemer in Geneva.