It seems that every year someone else comes up with a diet that can supposedly conquer obesity and all others health problems of civilization.
In almost every case, the diet is based on some “new” insight into how our bodies function, or how our ancestors (read – hunters gatherers (never mind that they only lived to be 35) ate, or how modern foods are killing us (never mind that the average person has never lived longer than ever before), or how (insert remote population here) lives today with no chronic disease.
Throw in some scientific terms like “ketogenic”, “guten”, “anti-oxidant”, “fructose”, or “insulin”, add some level of restriction and unusual foods, and (most importantly) get celebrity endorsement and “testemonials” and you have a best-seller (and a successful speaking career) ready to go.
The problem is that, no matter what the “scientific” (sounding) theories suggest, there is little evidence that the enthusiastic promises of any of these hold up under the cold light of scientific study.
Therefore, I am not the least surprised that the same holds true for the much hyped “alternative-day fasting diet”, which supposedly is best for us, because it mimics how our pre-historic ancestors apparently made it to the ripe age of 35 without obesity and heart attacks.
Thus, a year-long randomised controlled study by John Trepanowski and colleagues, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that alternate day fasting is evidently no better in producing superior adherence, weight loss, weight maintenance, or cardioprotection compared to good old daily calorie restriction (which also produces modest long-term results at best).
In fact, the alternate day fasting group had significantly more dropouts than both the daily calorie restriction and control group (38% vs. 29% and 26% respectively). Mean weight loss was virtually identical between both intervention groups (~6 Kg).
Purists of course will instantly critisize that the study did not actually test alternative-day fasting, as more people dropped out and most of the participants who stayed in that group actually ate more than prescribed on fast days, and less than prescribed on feast days – but that is exactly the point of this kind of study – to test whether the proposed diet works in “real life”, because no one in “real life” can ever be expected to be perfectly compliant with any diet. In fact, again, as this study shows, the more “restrictive” the diet (and, yes, starving yourself every other day is “restrictive”), the greater the dropout rate.
Unfortunately, what counts in real life is not what people should be doing, but what people actually do. The question really is not whether or not alternate-day fasting is better for someone trying to lose weight but rather, whether or not “recommending” someone follows an alternate-day fasting plan (and them trying to follow it the best they can) is better for them. The clear answer from this study is “no”.
So why are all diets the same (in that virtually all of them provide a rather modest degree of long-term weight loss)?
My guess is that no diet (or behaviour for that matter) has the capability of fundamentally changing the body’s biology that acts to protect and restore body fat in the long-term. Irrespective of whether a diet leads to weight loss in the short term and irrespective of how it does so (or how slow or fast), ultimately no diet manages to “reset” the body-weight set point to a lower level, that would biologically “stabilize” weight loss in the long-term.
Thus, the amount of long-term weight loss that can be achieved by dieting is always in the same (rather modest) ballpark and it is often only a matter of time before the biology wins out and put all the weight back on.
Clearly, I am not holding my breath for the next diet that comes along that promises to be better than everything we’ve had before.
My advice to patients is, do what works for you, but do not expect miracles – just find the diet you can happily live on and stick to it.
Managing weight in patients with type 2 diabetes (most of who have significant overweight or obesity) is always challenging, not least because many medications used to treat diabetes can also promote weight gain.
Now, a paper by Judy Shiau and colleagues from the University of Ottawa, in a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Diabetes, present the results of a retrospective cohort study (1992 to 2009) of weight, glycemic control and diabetes medications changes in 317 patients with obesity and type 2 diabetes at 6 months on a low-calorie diet program.
The program (week 1 to week 26) included mandatory weekly group sessions led by a dietitian, behaviour therapist or exercise therapist. All patients received OPTIFAST ®900 as full meal replacements (MR) starting at week 2. Patients consume 4 MR shakes per day for a total of 900 kcal per day, a regimen that is high in proteins (90g/day) and moderate in carbohydrates (67 g/day). Patients with initial body mass indexes (BMIs) of 33 kg/m2 or higher commited to 12 weeks of full MRs, while patients with initial BMIs below 33 started with 6 weeks of full MRs and the option to increase to up to 12 weeks of full MRs. Once patients completed their full MR regimen, there was a 5-week transition period to regular food, typically followed by a maintenance diet, as determined in a one-on- one dietitian counselling session.
As glycemic control improved with weight loss, anti-diabetes medications were adjusted or discontinued, thereby stopping any weight-gain-promoting medications first.
As the authors note,
“At 6 months, both groups had lost 16% of their weight, and the decreases or discontinuations of medications were 92% sulfonureas, 87% insulins, 79% thiazolidinediones, 78% alpha-glucosidase inhibitors, 50% meglitinides, 33% dipeptidyl peptidase-4 (DPP-4) inhibitors and 33% metformin. At 6 months, compared with baseline, A1C levels improved significantly and at 6 months, 30% of patients were no longer taking diabetes medications and had significantly better percentages of weight loss compared with those taking medications (18.6% vs. 16%; p=0.002).”
Thus, this paper shows that, a low-calorie meal replacement program can substantially improve glycemic control and reduce the need for anti-diabetes medications.
Unfortunately, as participants were transitioned to community care at 6 months, little is know about how long these effects last.
Nevertheless, with the increasing availability and use of weight-neutral or even weight-reducing anti-diabetes medications, one may expect that some of these effects can be sustained for relevant periods of time.
Just imagine if the question in the title of this post was, “Why would anyone want access to prescription medications for diabetes?” (or heart disease? or lung disease? or arthritis? or, for that matter, cancer?)
Why would anyone even ask that question?
If there is one thing we know for sure about obesity, it is that it behaves just like every other chronic disease.
Once you have it (no matter how or why you got it) – it pretty much becomes a life-long problem. Our bodies are so efficient in defending our body fat, that no matter what diet or exercise program you go on, ultimately, the body wins out and puts the weight back on.
In those few instances where people claim to have “conquered” obesity, you can virtually bet on it, that they are still dealing with keeping the lost weight off every single day of their life – they are not cured, they are just treated! Their risk of putting the weight back on (recidivism) is virtually 100% – it’s usually just a matter of time.
Funnily enough, this is no different from people trying to control any other chronic disease with diet and exercise alone.
Take for e.g. diabetes. It is not that diet and exercise don’t work for diabetes, but the idea that most people can somehow control their diabetes with diet and exercise alone is simply not true. No matter what diet they go on or what exercise program they follow, sooner or later, their blood sugar levels go back up and the problems come back.
You could pretty much say the same for high blood pressure or cholesterol, or pretty much any other chronic health problem (that, in fact, is the very definition of “chronic”).
So why medications for obesity?
Because, like every other chronic disease, medications can help patients achieve long-term treatment goals (of course only as long as they stay on treatment).
Simply put, if the reason people virtually always regain their lost weight (no matter how hard they try to lose it) is simply because of their body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, then medications that interfere with the body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, will surely make it far more likely for them to not only lose the weight but also keep it off.
Now that we increasingly understand many of the body’s mechanisms to defend against weight loss and promote weight regain (and the body has a whole bag of tricks that you are up against), then pharmacologically blocking these mechanisms makes this a manageable (fair?) fight.
This is by no means easy. Interfering with human physiology always comes at a cost – which is why we need medications that are robustly tested for safety and efficacy (which is why we are here talking about prescription medications and not the nonsense you can buy over the counter in your local drug store or health supplement outlet).
There is of course no guarantee that any one medication will work for or be tolerated by everyone – again, no different from the medications for other chronic diseases (which is why we have so many of them for the same indication).
So who has access to prescription anti-obesity medications in Canada?
Short answer – almost no one.
Thus, in the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released last week at the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, the less than 20% of Canadians living with obesity (and that is a very generous estimate) have access to the two prescriptions medications approved by Health Canada for long-term treatment of obesity.
Thus, as far a coverage for obesity medications in Canada is concerned,
Neither anti-obesity medication (Xenical® or saxenda®) are listed as a benefit on any provincial/territorial formulary and, therefore, they are not covered under any provincial public drug benefit (or pharmacare) programs.
There may be special-access programs in some provinces that adjudicate coverage for non-formulary medications based on individual case review; however, coverage for anti-obesity medications through these programs are not guaranteed and are, in fact, rare.
Anti-obesity medications are not covered in any federal public drug benefit programs.
Again one must ask, what will it take for governments, employers, and payers to stop discriminating against Canadians living with obesity in our healthcare system?
Disclaimer: I have received honoraria for speaking and consulting for companies that make anti-obesity medications
Many diet plans praise the importance of strict adherence to whatever the storyline of the diet happens to be. This includes tips on what foods to avoid or to never eat. Indulging in these “forbidden” foods, is considered cheating and failure.
Now, research by Rita Coelho do Vale and colleagues, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, explores the notion that planned “cheats” can substantially improve adherence with restrictive diets.
Using a set of controlled dietary experiments (both simulated and real dieting), the researchers tested the notion that goal deviations (a more scientific term for “cheats”) in the plan helps consumers to regain or even improve self-regulatory resources along the goal-pursuit process and can thus enhance the likelihood that the final goal is attained.
That, is exactly what they found:
Compared to individuals who followed a straight and rigid goal, individuals with planned deviations helped subjects regain self-regulatory resources, helped maintain subjects’ motivation to pursue with regulatory tasks, and (3) has a positive impact on affect experienced, which are all likely to facilitate long-term goal-adherence.
Thus, the authors conclude that, “…it may be beneficial for long-term goal-success to occasionally be bad, as long it is planned.”
This is not really that new to those of us, who recommend or use planned “treats” as a way to make otherwise restrictive diets bearable.
Good to see that there is now some research to support this notion.
Next, in this miniseries on arguments for and against calling obesity a disease, I turn to the issue of stigma.
One of the biggest arguments against calling obesity, is the fear that doing so can increase stigma against people living with obesity.
This is nonsense, because I do not think it is at all possible for anything to make stigma and the discrimination of people living with obesity worse than it already is.
If anything, calling obesity a disease (defined as excess or abnormal body fat that impairs your health), could well serve to reduce that stigma by changing the narrative around obesity.
The current narrative sees obesity largely as a matter of personal choice involving poor will power to control your diet and unwillingness to engage in even a modest amount of regular physical activity.
In contrast, the term ‘disease’ conjures up the notion of complex biology including genetics, epigenetics, neurohormonal dysregulation, environmental toxins, mental health issues and other factors including social determinants of health, that many will accept are beyond the simple control of the individual.
This is not to say that other diseases do not carry stigma. This has and remains the case for diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to depression – but, the stigma surrounding these conditions has been vastly reduced by changing the narrative of these illnesses.
Today, we are more likely to think of depression (and other mental illnesses) as a problem related to “chemicals in the brain”, than something that people can pull out of with sheer motivation and will power.
Perhaps changing the public narrative around obesity, from simply a matter of motivation and will power, to one that invokes the complex sociopsychobiology that really underlies this disorder, will, over time, also help reduce the stigma of obesity.
Once we see obesity as something that can affect anyone (it can), for which we have no easy solutions (we don’t), and which often requires medical or surgical treatment (it does) best administered by trained and regulated health professionals (like for other diseases), we can perhaps start destigmatizing this condition and change the climate of shame and blame that people with this disease face everyday.