Wednesday, November 26, 2014

McKinsey on Obesity: Doing Something Beats Doing Nothing

McKinsey Overcoming ObesityLast week the McKinsey Global Institute, with much media fanfare, released a 120 page discussion paper titled, “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis“, which estimates that the economic cost of the global obesity epidemic is upwards of $2 trillion, a number similar to the economic cost of tobacco consumption or armed conflicts.

The report identifies 74 interventions in 18 areas (ranging from policy and population health to health care) deemed to be cost effective, which, if implemented, could lead to annual savings of $1.2 billion in the UK National Health Services alone.

However, when it comes to the actual impact of these 74 strategies, the report is far more sobering in that it notes that many of these interventions are far from proven:

“The evidence base on the clinical and behavioral interventions to reduce obesity is far from complete, and ongoing investment in research is imperative. However, in many cases this is proving a barrier to action. It need not be so. We should experiment with solutions and try them out rather than waiting for perfect proof of what works, especially in the many areas where interventions are low risk. We have enough knowledge to be taking more action than we currently are.”

In other words, let’s not wait to find out what works – let’s just do something – anything (and keep our fingers crossed).

Thus, the report urges us to

“(1) deploy as many interventions as possible at scale and delivered effectively by the full range of sectors in society; (2) understand how to align incentives and build cooperation; and (3) do not focus unduly on prioritizing interventions because this can hamper constructive action.”

I can see why politicians would welcome these recommendations, as they are essentially a carte blanche to either doing nothing (we don’t have the evidence) or doing whatever they want (anything is better than nothing).

The fact that,

“Based on existing evidence, any single intervention is likely to have only a small overall impact on its own. A systemic, sustained portfolio of initiatives, delivered at scale, is needed to address the health burden.”

means that when any measure fails, it is not because it was the wrong measure but because there was either not enough of it or it was not complemented by additional measures.

Again, a free pass for politicians, who can pass whatever measures they want (based on their political ideologies or populistic pressure from their constituencies), without having to demonstrate that what they did, had any effect at all.

Of course, no report on obesity would be complete without also stressing the importance of “personal responsibility”, as if this was somehow more important for obesity than it is for diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, or any other disease I can think of.

Unfortunately, the report also includes rather nonsensical statements like,

“44 interventions bring 20% of overweight/obese Britons back to normal weight”

a sentence that defies the very chronic nature of obesity, where once established excess weight is vigorously “defended” by complex neuroendocrine responses that will counteract any change in energy balance to sustain excess body weight.

Thus, unfortunately, the authors fall into the common misconception about obesity simply being a matter of calories in and calories out, a balance that can be volitionally adjusted to achieve whatever body weight you wish to have.

Indeed, there is very little discussion in this “discussion paper” of the underlying biology of obesity, although it is acknowledged in passing:

“Even though there are important outstanding questions about diet composition, gut microbiome, and epigenetics, we are not walking blind with no sense of what to address. However, interventions to increase physical activity, reduce energy consumption, and address diet composition cannot just seek to reverse the historical trends that have left the population where it is today. For example, we cannot, nor would we wish to, reverse the invention of the Internet or the industrialization of agriculture. We need to assess what interventions make sense and are feasible in 2014.”

Will this report move governments to action? Or, even more importantly, will this report bring us any closer to reversing the epidemic or providing better treatments to people who already have obesity?

Readers may appreciate that I am not holding my breath quite yet.

ƒƒ@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB
ƒƒ

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Friday, October 24, 2014

Social Network Analysis of the Obesity Research Boot Camp

bootcamp_pin_finalRegular readers may recall that for the past nine years, I have had the privilege and pleasure of serving as faculty of the Canadian Obesity Network’s annual Obesity Research Summer Bootcamp.

The camp is open to a select group of graduate and post-graduate trainees from a wide range of disciplines with an interest in obesity research. Over nine days, the trainees are mentored and have a chance to learn about obesity research in areas ranging from basic science to epidemiology and childhood obesity to health policy.

Now, a formal network analysis of bootcamp attendees, published by Jenny Godley and colleagues in the Journal of Interdisciplinary Healthcare, documents the substantial impact that this camp has on the careers of the trainees.

As the analysis of trainees who attended this camp over its first 5 years of operation (2006-2010) shows, camp attendance had a profound positive impact on their career development, particularly in terms of establishing contacts and professional relationships.

Thus, both the quantitative and the qualitative results demonstrate the importance of interdisciplinary training and relationships for career development in obesity researcher (and possibly beyond).

Personally, participation at this camp has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career and I look forward to continuing this annual exercise for years to come.

To apply for the 2015 Bootcamp, which is also open to international trainees – click here.

@DrSharma
Toronto, ON

ResearchBlogging.orgGodley J, Glenn NM, Sharma AM, & Spence JC (2014). Networks of trainees: examining the effects of attending an interdisciplinary research training camp on the careers of new obesity scholars. Journal of multidisciplinary healthcare, 7, 459-70 PMID: 25336965

 

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Call For Abstracts: Canadian Obesity Summit, Toronto, April 28-May 2, 2015

COS2015 toronto callBuilding on the resounding success of Kananaskis, Montreal and Vancouver, the biennial Canadian Obesity Summit is now setting its sights on Toronto.

If you have a professional interest in obesity, it’s your #1 destination for learning, sharing and networking with experts from across Canada around the world.

In 2015, the Canadian Obesity Network (CON-RCO) and the Canadian Association of Bariatric Physicians and Surgeons (CABPS) are combining resources to hold their scientific meetings under one roof.

The 4th Canadian Obesity Summit (#COS2015) will provide the latest information on obesity research, prevention and management to scientists, health care practitioners, policy makers, partner organizations and industry stakeholders working to reduce the social, mental and physical burden of obesity on Canadians.

The COS 2015 program will include plenary presentations, original scientific oral and poster presentations, interactive workshops and a large exhibit hall. Most importantly, COS 2015 will provide ample opportunity for networking and knowledge exchange for anyone with a professional interest in this field.

Abstract submission is now open – click here

Key Dates

  • Abstract submission deadline: October 23, 2014
  • Notification of abstract review: January 8, 2014
  • Early registration deadline: March 5, 2015

For exhibitor and sponsorship information – click here

To join the Canadian Obesity Network – click here

I look forward to seeing you in Toronto next year!

@DrSharma
Montreal, QC

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

4th Canadian Obesity student Meeting (COSM 2014)

Uwaterloo_sealOver the next three days, I will be in Waterloo, Ontario, attending the 4th biennial Canadian Obesity Student Meeting (COSM 2014), a rather unique capacity building event organised by the Canadian Obesity Network’s Students and New Professionals (CON-SNP).

CON-SNP consist of an extensive network within CON, comprising of over 1000 trainees organised in about 30 chapters at universities and colleges across Canada.

Students and trainees in this network come from a wide range of backgrounds and span faculties and research interests as diverse as molecular genetics and public health, kinesiology and bariatric surgery, education and marketing, or energy metabolism and ingestive behaviour.

Over the past eight years, since the 1st COSM was hosted by laval university in Quebec, these meetings have been attended by over 600 students, most presenting their original research work, often for the first time to an audience of peers.

Indeed, it is the peer-led nature of this meeting that makes it so unique. COSM is entirely organised by CON-SNP – the students select the site, book the venues, review the abstracts, design the program, chair the sessions, and lead the discussions.

Although a few senior faculty are invited, they are largely observers, at best participating in discussions and giving the odd plenary lecture. But 85% of the program is delivered by the trainees themselves.

Apart from the sheer pleasure of sharing in the excitement of the participants, it has been particularly rewarding to follow the careers of many of the trainees who attended the first COSMs – many now themselves hold faculty positions and have trainees of their own.

As my readers are well aware, I regularly attend professional meetings around the world – none match the excitement and intensity of COSM.

I look forward to another succesful meeting as we continue to build the next generation of Canadian obesity researchers, health professionals and policy makers.

You can follow live tweets from this meeting at #COSM2014

@DrSharma
Waterloo, Ontario

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Monday, May 5, 2014

We Don’t Know Much About Obesity

Nature Outlook Obesity 2014For a condition as prevalent and dangerous as obesity, we know surprisingly little about its causes and cures.

This is the first sentence by Nature Outlook Editor Tony Scully, in a special edition dedicated entirely to obesity.

The volume features both articles by science writers as well as a selection of original contributions on topics ranging from AgRP and the FTO gene to food addiction and the microbiome.

This edition also features and updated map of the worldwide prevalence of obesity – many readers may well be surprised to learn that obesity rates are now as high in parts of central America, northern and southern Africa and in parts of the middle East as they are in North America. Indeed, obesity rates in South Africa are “off the chart”, no approaching almost 40% of the entire population.

This leaves millions of people around the world in need of more effective treatments. Blue-eyed utopian notions that we can somehow help these millions by re-engineering societies to eat-less and move more (as suggested in a rather unfortunate contribution to this edition by David Katz), are naive at best and present a disservice to those hoping for real and practical solutions at worst.

The simple truth is that for the vast majority of the folks with obesity we simply have no effective treatments, let alone a cure.

As Tully notes,

“The best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. But as a strategy to combat obesity at the population level, this common-sense prescription is proving ineffective over the long term.”

Sure, not everyone carrying a few extra pounds has a “disease” and we are doing an increasingly better job of managing obesity related health problems – certainly one reason why people with excess weight are today living far longer than a few decades ago.

But for those who would rather treat their obesity than be on medications for their high blood pressure, diabetes, and joint pain and perhaps rid themselves of their CPAP machines, there are few treatment options: diet and exercise, i.e if you wish to live off 1400 Cal with 400 Cals of daily exercise (as the folks in the National Weight Control Registry manage to do) or opt for bariatric surgery (a rather drastic measure by any stretch).

Indeed, there is currently no greater “therapeutic gap” for a common chronic disease, than there is for obesity.

Hopefully, as science advances we will eventually stop playing the “shame and blame” game and rightly abandon the utopians who sit awaiting the day when Big Food and Big Cars will finally see the light (by mercifully going out of business).

Stay tuned for more on the articles in this issue – stay tuned.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

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In The News

Diabetics in most need of bariatric surgery, university study finds

Oct. 18, 2013 – Ottawa Citizen: "Encouraging more men to consider bariatric surgery is also important, since it's the best treatment and can stop diabetic patients from needing insulin, said Dr. Arya Sharma, chair in obesity research and management at the University of Alberta." Read article

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