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Ultra-Processed Foods Cause Weight Gain

Every now and then, a landmark study comes along that definitively answers an important question, and, perhaps more importantly, lays to rest many of the theories that float around both in the scientific literature and the lay media. It would perhaps not be superlative to note that just such a study by Kevin Hall and colleagues (presented just a few weeks ago at the 6th Biennial Canadian Obesity Summit) has now been published in Cell Metabolism. The study examines what happens to calorie intake and body weight when people have free access to a diet largely composed of ultra-processed foods vs. a diet composed of unprocessed foods. Ultra-processed foods have been described as “formulations mostly of cheap industrial sources of dietary energy and nutrients plus additives, using a series of processes” and containing minimal whole foods. Importantly, the two diets were carefully matched for presented calories, energy density, macronutrients, sugar, sodium, and fiber. Although protein, carbohydrate, and fat content were virtually identical, the ultra-processed foods differed substantially from the un-processed foods in the proportion of added to total sugar (∼54% versus 1%, respectively), insoluble to total fiber (∼77% versus 16%, respectively), saturated to total fat (∼34% versus 19%), and the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids (∼11:1 versus 5:1). The 20 weight stable healthy participants, who spent over four weeks in an in-patient metabolic ward, were instructed to consume as much or as little of the foods offered with one diet over a two week period before switching to two weeks of the other diet (in a random cross-over fashion). In short, during the 2nd week of eating the ultra-processed diet, subjects consumed about 500 kcal more per day than during the 2nd week of the unprocessed diet. This was accompanied by an almost 2 lb weight gain on the ultra-processed diet (whereas weight reduced by about the same measure on the unprocessed diet). This response was seen irrespective of which diet came first or of the baseline BMI of participants. To set this study in perspective, there have long been theories about how the increased availability of ultra-processed foods may be playing a causal role in the obesity epidemic. Thus, as the authors point out, “Ultra-processed foods may facilitate overeating and the development of obesity because they are typically high in calories, salt, sugar, and fat and have been suggested to be engineered to have supernormal appetitive properties that… Read More »

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Canadian Obesity Advocacy Network

As readers are well aware, the current public and health policy discussions around obesity are centred around the notion that obesity is largely a “lifestyle” problem that can be addressed largely by population-wide and individual-based initiatives focussed on promoting healthy eating and increased physical activity (eat less – move more). Irrespective of whether or not this is intended, the impact of this simplistic narrative on the lives of people living with obesity are clear: not only does this narrative squarely place the blame (eating too much, not moving enough) on individuals living with obesity, it also largely ignores the vast body of research that points to the complex interplay of biological and psychosocial drivers of obesity, most of which are beyond the control of the individual. This narrative is also now recognised as the root cause of weight bias, stigma, as well as health and social inequalities that can reach the level of outright discrimination. Importantly, this simplistic narrative, together with the failure to recognise obesity as a chronic disease (like type 2 diabetes or hypertension), by governments, health systems, public and private payers, the public, and media has a trickle-down effect on access to treatment for those living with this disease. As outlined it the Obesity Canada’s Report Card on Access to Obesity Treatment for Adults in Canada 2019, the vast majority of Canadians lack access to behavioural interventions, medically supervised weight management using meal replacements, anti-obesity medications, and bariatric surgery. In an attempt to change this narrative, Obesity Canada has now assembled a large (and growing) coalition of stakeholders, who are willing to speak with a united voice on obesity and advocacy efforts. Members of the coalition support the notion that obesity is, “a chronic disease that is defined by having adipose tissue (body fat) that impairs health. It is not solely based on weight, BMI or body size but rather the degree of physiological, functional, and psychosocial barriers that affect one’s holistic health” Overall, the mission of this Advocacy Network is to unite and align key organizations and the community around education, policy, and legislative advocacy efforts in order to elevate the obesity as a chronic disease narrative on the national agenda. It is through this change in narrative, that people affected by obesity may gain access to the same medically necessary and covered management avenues afforded to all others who suffer from chronic diseases. All of… Read More »

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2018 European Obesity Day – Tackling Obesity Together

This week I am in Dublin for the 7th Conference of the Association for the Study of Obesity on the Island of Ireland (asoi), which co-incides with the 2018 European Obesity Day (Saturday, May 18). As any “day”, the aim of the Obesity Day is to draw attention to and foster discussions about obesity, its causes, and possible solutions. The accompanying website provides links to a number of interesting and helpful resources, including Obesity Facts, messages to Policy Makers, Patient Perspectives, Addressing Obesity Stigma, and Patient and Expert videos. How much these activities change the narrative and actions on obesity remain to be seen, but no doubt, any initiative that promotes greater awareness and discussion of the science of obesity is much appreciated. @DrSharmaDublin, Ireland

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Rural Areas Drive Global Obesity

To anyone working in obesity, it is no secret that obesity is now far more common in rural (and suburban) areas (at least in industrialised countries) than in big cities. This may appear counterintuitive, as access to food services is much greater and easier in cities than in rural areas. In contrast, there is a wide-spread assumption that people living in rural areas mainly consume produce from their own farms and gardens, and have less access to ultra-processed and packaged food. Now, a paper by the international NCD Risk Factor Collaboration, published in Nature, shows that rural obesity, even in many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs), is rising much faster than in urban populations. The study collates 2,009 population-based studies, with measurements of height and weight in more than 112 million adults, to report national, regional and global trends in mean BMI segregated by place of residence (a rural or urban area) from 1985 to 2017.  The data shows that, with the exception of women in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 55% of the global rise in mean BMI from 1985 to 2017—and more than 80% in some low- and middle-income regions—was due to increases in BMI in rural areas. Thus, “these trends have in turn resulted in a closing—and in some countries reversal—of the gap in BMI between urban and rural areas in low- and middle-income countries, especially for women. In high-income and industrialized countries, we noted a persistently higher rural BMI, especially for women.”  The authors attribute this trend to the urbanisation of rural life, which includes not only the decreased need for physical labour thanks to agricultural mechanisation, dependence on cars, rising income, and the increased availability and consumption of highly processed calorie-dense foods. In contrast, “The lower urban BMI in high-income and industrialized countries reflects a growing rural economic and social disadvantage, including lower education and income, lower availability and higher price of healthy and fresh foods, less access to, and use of, public transport and walking than in cities, and limited availability of facilities for sports and recreational activity, which account for a significant share of overall physical activity in high-income and industrialized countries.“ Clearly, this alarming trend poses new challenges for public health initiatives to curb the obesity epidemic, which have thus far largely (albeit with little effect), focussed on urban populations. Although not discussed in the paper, this trend also poses new challenges for the health care system, which… Read More »

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Obesity And Perinatal Care

Last week, I had the pleasure of sitting on the thesis defence committees of two extraordinarily dedicated young trainees, currently completing their medical residencies in obstetrics and gynaecology. Both theses focussed on issues related to obesity within the obstetric community as well as the implications of obesity for the care of women during the gestational period and during delivery (more on these theses in coming posts). For those interested in this topic, I would like to draw your attention to a short review paper by Cecilia Jevitt, Chair of the Midwifery Program at the University of British Columbia, published in the Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing. Although the paper focusses on the social determinants of health that underly a substantial proportion of the risk for developing obesity (these include socio-economic disparities in employment, education, healthcare access, food quality, and availability), the paper also looks at many of the environment and biological factors that may promote obesity including environmental toxins, epigentics, and the microbiota. As for the impacts of excess body fat on pregnancy, Levitt lists over 30 conditions that can affect the pregnancy, delivery, and the post-partum period, threathening the health of mother and child, which are far more common in women with obesity. This is not to say that many of these problems can not also be encountered in the care of women without obesity, however, excess body weight makes these conditions far more likely and often much more difficult to manage. As Levitt points out, reducing the risk for obesity in the first place would need comprehensive changes at the policy level that not only address issues related to food and activity but also the socio-economic and other social determinants of health that disproportionately affect women of lower socio-economic status. As currently, no such policies are in sight, those charged with the care of women of childbearing age will continue having to watch for and deal with the increased risk for adverse outcomes in women with excess weight – a challenge that is only slowly (as evidenced by the theses mentioned above) coming to the centre of attention of obstetric health professionals. On the positive side, Levitt reminds us that, “Although obesity places women at risk for numerous morbidities, most women with obese BMIs [sic] complete pregnancy and birth without complications.” Improved training of health professionals in the care of women with obesity can no doubt further… Read More »

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Ethical Dilemmas in Obesity Prevention and Management

Later this week, I have been invited to present the opening address at the 7th Annual Meeting of the Association for the Study of Obesity on the Island of Ireland in Dublin. The topic I was asked to speak about, concerns some of the ethical dilemmas we face in trying to address the prevention and management of obesity. The following is the abstract of my presentation, which will hopefully stimulate some interesting discussion on this important issue: Obesity is highly stigmatised and people living with obesity face bias and discrimination in virtually all societal settings including education, professional life, and even health care. Although obesity is now increasingly recognised as a complex chronic disease (not unlike hypertension or type 2 diabetes), both the public health and clinical approaches to obesity prevention and management embrace a rather simplistic narrative of “eat-less-move-more”, which fails to fully acknowledge that complex interaction between environmental and neurobiological mechanisms play a large role in determining body shape and size, much of which is beyond the control of the individual. Thus, there is currently no proven public health approach to reducing obesity in a population, nor does diet and exercise help sustain long-term weight loss in the vast majority of people living with obesity. Despite an abundance of weight loss attempts and a diversity of diets and weight-loss programs, sustained weight loss over years remains the exception – for most people, weight regain (relapse) is just a matter or time.  This is in contrast to medical or surgical treatments of obesity, which have proven to be far superior to behavioural interventions alone in sustaining long-term weight loss. Given that obesity now affects almost one in four adults in most Western countries, health administrators face important dilemmas regarding how to best provide access to effective treatments to the millions of people living with this chronic disease. In this regard, learning from other chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes can be helpful and will be discussed. @DrSharmaBerlin, Germany

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Does A New Canadian Study on Cancer Inadvertently Make a Strong Case For Treating Obesity?

Last week, a series of papers by a pan-Canadian team of cancer researchers, published in Preventive Medicine, looks at the current and future burden of more than 30 different cancer types due to more than 20 different modifiable cancer risk factors. Not surprisingly, the ComPARe study shows that currently the top five leading preventable causes of cancer in Canada are smoking tobacco, followed by physical inactivity, excess weight, low fruit, and sun – factors that have long been implicated in the development of a wide range of cancers. According to the researchers, overweight and obesity now rank just behind smoking as a key driver of cancer risk. Obviously, this makes a strong case for increasing efforts at obesity prevention – the caveat being that thus far, no society has yet figured out exactly how this can be effectively achieved at a population level. While, for obvious reasons, the papers focus on preventative approaches to reduce the burden of cancer, there is little mention of the potential benefits in terms of cancer prevention that could come from offering more effective obesity management to the 8,000,000 Canadians are already living with this chronic disease, who are unlikely to substantially benefit from population strategies to prevent obesity. Fortunately, there is now a growing body of evidence showing that effective obesity treatment, including bariatric surgery, can substantially reduce cancer risk in people living with obesity. Thus, if anything, these data provide even more reason to get serious about treating obesity (not just hoping that it will somehow disappear if we just keep talking about prevention). Obviously, even without effective obesity treatments, Canadians living with obesity (like everyone else) will likely benefit from smoking cessation, reducing sedentariness, and increasing their fruit and vegetable consumption (most of them already stay out of the sun). However, effective obesity management aimed at both preventing further weight gain as well as reducing excess body weight (in a sustainable manner) will potentially have even greater benefits in this population. Unfortunately, as evidenced in the recent 2019 Obesity Canada Report Card on Access to Obesity Treatments, the vast majority of Canadians have little, if any access to obesity treatments within their health care systems – this needs to change if we are to not only reduce the burden of cancers but also of obesity related cardiometabolic disease, arthritis, sleep apnea, and a host of other medical complications. While we wait for… Read More »

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2019 Obesity Canada Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatments For Adults Shows Much Room For Improvement

Obesity Canada’s second report card assessing access to treatment concludes Canadians living with obesity continue to be ignored by healthcare systems and health policy makers, as well as employers, compared to those requiring support for other chronic conditions  The disparity exposes the roughly six million Canadians who may be affected by this disease to negative health effects such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension, sleep apnea, reflux, depression, anxiety and more. It also puts them at risk for the effects of weight bias and discrimination at home, in the workplace, media and at school. Key findings of the Report Card on Access to Obesity Treatments for Adults in Canada 2019include: Every province and territory receive a grade of ‘F’ for public coverage of obesity medications; the federal government receive a ‘C’.  All provinces that offer bariatric surgery except Quebec receive an ‘F’ for overall access to surgery, as does Canada as a whole. Quebec receives a ‘D’.   No province or territory officially recognizes obesity as a chronic disease. There is a profound lack of interdisciplinary teams for obesity management in Canada, despite their recognized benefits in obesity treatment guidelines. Contrasting with other chronic diseases, Canadians who may benefit from medically supervised weight-management programs with meal replacements are expected to pay out-of-pocket for meal replacement products.  Take a look at the complete Report here. Obesity Canada makes five key recommendations based on the 2019 report card: 1.    Governments, employers and the health insurance industry should officially adopt the position of the Canadian Medical Association that obesity is a chronic disease and orient their approach/resources accordingly. 2.    Governments should recognize that weight bias and stigma are barriers to helping people with obesity and enshrine rights in provincial/territorial human rights codes, workplace regulations, healthcare systems and education. 3.    Governments should include anti-obesity medications, weight-management programs with meal replacement and other evidence-based products and programs in their provincial drug benefit plans. 4.    Employers should recognize and respond to obesity as a chronic disease and provide coverage for evidence-based obesity programs and Health Canada approved treatments for their employees through health benefit plans. 5.    Governments and health authorities should increase the availability of interdisciplinary teams and increase their capacity to provide evidence-based obesity management. Let’s make obesity a priority in Canada! Please take a minute to write your federal and provincial members of parliament to demand better access to obesity treatments. Obesity Canada has launched an… Read More »

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