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.
Continuing in my miniseries on why obesity (defined here, as excess or abnormal body fat that affects your health) should be considered a disease, is the simple observation that obesity responds less to lifestyle treatments than most people think.
Yes, the internet abounds with before and after pictures of people who have “conquered” obesity with diet, exercise, or both, but in reality, long-term success in “lifestyle” management of obesity is rare and far between.
Indeed, if the findings from the National Weight Control Registry have taught us anything, it is just how difficult and how much work it takes to lose weight and keep it off.
Even in the context of clinical trials conducted in highly motivated volunteers receiving more support than you would ever be able to reasonably provide in clinical practice, average weight loss at 12 – 24 months is often a modest 3-5%.
Thus, for the vast majority of people living with obesity, “lifestyle” treatment is simply not effective enough – at least not as a sustainable long-term strategy in real life.
While this may seem disappointing to many (especially, to those in the field, who have dedicated their lives to promoting “healthy” lifestyles as the solution to obesity), in reality, this is not very different from the real-life success of “lifestyle” interventions for other “lifestyle” diseases.
Thus, while there is no doubt that diet and exercise are important cornerstones for the management of diabetes or hypertension, most practitioners (and patients) will agree, that very few people with these conditions can be managed by lifestyle interventions alone.
Indeed, I would put to you that without medications, only a tiny proportion of people living with diabetes, hypertension, or dyslipidemia would be able to “control” these conditions simply by changing their lifestyles.
Not because diet and exercise are not effective for these conditions, but because diet and exercise are simply not enough.
The same is true for obesity. It is not that diet and exercise are useless – they absolutely remain a cornerstone of treatment. But, by themselves, they are simply not effective enough to control obesity in the vast majority of people who have it.
This is because, diet and exercise do not alter the biology that drives and sustains obesity. If anything, diet and exercise work against the body’s biology, which is working hard to defend body weight at all costs.
Thus, it is time we accept this reality and recognise that without pharmacological and/or surgical treatments that interfere with this innate biology, we will not be able to control obesity in the majority of patients.
Whether we like it or not, I predict that within a decade, clinical management of obesity will look no different than current management of any other chronic disease. Most patients will require both “lifestyle” and probably a combination of anti-obesity medications to control their obesity.
This does not take away from the importance of diet and exercise – as important as they are, they are simply not enough.
Despite what “lifestyle” enthusiasts will have us believe, diet and exercise are no more important (or effective) for the treatment of obesity, than they are for the treatment of hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, depression, or any other condition that responds to “lifestyle” interventions.
In the end, most patients will require more effective treatments to manage their obesity and all of the comorbidities that come with it. The sooner we develop and make accessible such treatments, the sooner we can really help our patients.
It must have been a pretty cheap rubber band, because every few months it would wear out and lose its stretch, so it had to be replaced it with a new band.
Unfortunately, this is not what can be said about the rubber band that I used in my recent TEDx talk to demonstrate what happens when you try to lose weight.
Unlike the cheap band in my pyjamas, the rubber band I used to represent our physiology trying to gain the weight back, never seems to lose its stretch.
No matter how hard or how long we pull, the rubber band keeps wanting to bring our weight back to where we started.
Yes, perhaps for some people, eventually the rubber band may relax (these would certainly be the exceptions) or may be the “muscles” that we use to pull on the band just grow stronger, which makes it seem easier to keep up the pull – but for all we know, in most people, this “rubber band” is of pretty good quality and seems to last forever.
So, how do we take the tension out of the rubber band ?
Well, we do know that people who have bariatric surgery have a much better chance of keeping the weight off in the long-term and we now understand that this has little to do with the “restriction” or the “malabsorbtion” resulting from these procedures but rather from the profound effect that this surgery has on the physiology of weight regain.
Thus, we know that many of the hormonal and neurological changes that happen with bariatric surgery, seem to inhibit the body’s ability to defend its weight and perhaps even appears to trick the body into thinking that its weight is higher than it actually is.
In other words, bariatric surgery helps maintain long-term weight loss by reducing the tension in the rubber band, thus making it far easier for patients to maintain the “pull”.
And that is exactly how we think some of the anti-obesity medications may be working.
For example, daily injections of liraglutide, a GLP-1 analogue approved for obesity treatment, appears to decrease the body’s ability to counteract weight loss by reducing hunger and increasing satiety, thus taking some of the tension out of that band.
Think of it as sprinkling “magic dust” on that rubber band to reduce the tension, which makes it easier for patients to maintain that pull thereby helping them keep the weight off.
Of course, both surgery and liraglutide only reduce the tension as long as you continue using them.
Undo the surgery or come off your anti-obesity meds and the tension in that band comes back as strong as ever.
For readers, who have no idea what I’m talking about, hopefully things will become clearer after you watch my talk by clicking here.