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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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Cultural Drivers and Context of Obesity

sharma-obesity-family-watching-tvIn my continuing review of not too recent publications on obesity, I found this one by Hortense Powdermaker, Professor of Anthropology, Queens College, Flushing, New York, published in the Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine in 1960.

The following quotes could all have been written last week:

“We eat too much. We have too much of many things. According to the population experts, there are too many people in the world, due to the decline in mortality rates. A key theme in this age of plenty-people, food, things-is consumption. We are urged to buy more and more things and new things: food, cars, refrigerators, television sets, clothes, etcetera. We are constantly advised that prosperity can be maintained only by ever-increasing consumption.”

“…physical activity is almost non-existent in most occupations, particularly those in the middle and upper classes. We think of the everincreasing white-collar jobs, the managerial and professional groups, and even the unskilled and skilled laborers in machine and factory production. For some people there are active games in leisure time, probably more for males than females. But, in general, leisure time activities tend to become increasingly passive. We travel in automobiles, we sit in movies, we stay at home and watch television. Most people live too far away to walk to their place of work.”

“The slender, youthful-looking figure is now desired by women of all ages. The term “matronly”, with its connotation of plumpness, is decidedly not flattering. Although the female body is predisposed to proportionately more fat and the male to more muscle, the plump or stout woman’s body is considered neither beautiful nor sexually attractive.”

“The desire for health, for longevity, for youthfulness, for sexual attractiveness is indeed a powerful motivation. Yet obesity is a problem. We ask, then, what cultural and psychological factors might be counteracting the effective work of nutritionists, physicians, beauty specialists, and advertisements in the mass media?”

“Although there are probably relatively few people today who know sustained hunger because of poverty, poor people eat differently from rich people. Fattening, starchy foods are common among the former, and in certain ethnic groups, particularly those from southern Europe, women tend to be fat. Obesity for women is therefore somewhat symbolic for lower class. In our socially mobile society this is a powerful deterrent. The symbolism of obesity in men has been different. The image of a successful middle-aged man in the middle and upper classes has been with a “pouch”, or “bay-window”, as it was called a generation ago.”

The paper goes on to discuss some (rather stereotypic) notions about why some people overeat and others don’t – an interesting read but nothing we haven’t heard before.

Nevertheless, given that this paper was written over 50 years ago – one wonders how much more we’ve actually learnt about the cultural aspects of this issue – it seems that we are still discussing the same problem as our colleagues were half a century ago.

Perhaps it really is time for some new ideas.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB
ResearchBlogging.orgPOWDERMAKER H (1960). An anthropological approach to the problem of obesity. Bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine, 36, 286-95 PMID: 14434548

 

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Thursday, October 9, 2014

Are Smokers More Deserving of Treatment Than People Living With Obesity?

sharma-obesity-teen-smokingThis certainly appears to be the opinion of the majority of people living in Denmark, as reported in a study by Thomas Lund and colleagues published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

The study examined public support for publicly funded treatment of obesity (weight-loss surgery and medical treatment) and two pulmonary diseases strongly associated with smoking (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer) in Denmark.

While a large majority supported treatment for lung cancer (86.1%) and COPD 71.2% (even when described as ‘smoker’s lung’ 61.9%), only one in three supported publicly funded weight-loss surgery (30%) and medical treatment of obesity (34.4%).

Not surprisingly, respondents beliefs about the causes of lifestyle-related diseases (external environment, genetic disposition and lack of willpower) and agreement that ‘people lack responsibility for their life and welfare’ influenced support for these treatments, especially in the case of treatments for obesity.

My guess is that these finding will not be significantly different in other countries that have publicly funded health care systems, including the UK or Canada, where treatments for cigarette-related lung and heart disease (as well as treatments for smoking cessation) are by far more accepted and accessible than treatments for obesity.

While I am all for treating and perhaps even further improving the care of people with smoking-related health problems, not having the same degree of concern or accessibility to treatments for obesity should be unacceptable.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

ResearchBlogging.orgLund TB, Nielsen ME, & Sandøe P (2014). In a class of their own: the Danish public considers obesity less deserving of treatment compared with smoking-related diseases. European journal of clinical nutrition PMID: 25248357

 

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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Can Education Offset The Genetic Risk For Obesity?

sharma-obesity-dna_molecule9Obesity is a highly heritable condition with considerable penetrance, especially in our obesogenic enviroment.

However, as I have pointed out before, having a genetic predisposition for obesity (like having a genetic predisposition for other diseases such as diabetes or high blood pressure) does not mean your fate is chiseled in stone. Lifestyle changes can significantly reduce the risk, but those with a stronger genetic predisposition will have to work a lot harder at not gaining weight than those who are naturally slender.

That said, a new study by Liu and colleagues from Harvard University, published in Social Science & Medicine, shows that better education may offset a substantial proportion of the genetic risk for obesity and/or diabetes.

The researchers created genetic risk scores for obesity and diabetes based on single nucleotide polymorphism (SNPs) confirmed as genome-wide significant predictors for BMI (29 SNPs) and diabetes risk (39 SNPs) in over 8000 participants in the Health and Retirement Study.

Linear regression models with years of schooling indicate that the effect of genetic risk on both HbA1c and BMI was smaller among people with more years of schooling and larger among those with less than a high school (HS) degree compared to HS degree-holders.

As one may expect, estimates from the quantile regression models consistently indicated stronger associations for years of schooling and genetic risk scores at the higher end of the outcome distribution, where individuals are at actual risk for diabetes and obesity.

In other words, the greater the genetic risk for diabetes or obesity, the greater the positive impact of finishing high-school or college.

In contrast, having less than a high-school education augmented the genetic risk for these conditions.

From these findings the authors conclude that,

“Our findings provide some support for the social trigger model, which speculates that the social environment can attenuate or exacerbate inherent genetic risks. Furthermore, it suggests social stratification may shape how genetic vulnerability is expressed. Social hierarchies based on socioeconomic status determine the health status of individuals. According to fundamental cause theory, policies and interventions must address social factors directly to have a population-level impact on disease risk . Our results show how education, a fundamental cause of health and disease, can serve as a valuable resource that offsets even innate biological risk. Education increases an individual’s ability to adapt, modify, and use surrounding resources. As such, polices that reduce disparities in education may help offset underlying genetic risk.”

This study strongly supports my view that one cannot (and should not) ignore genetic risk when studying the effect of environmental or behavioural factors in populations or individuals. Indeed, the greatest benefit of these interventions clearly appear to be found in those with the highest genetic risk.

@DrSharma
Ottawa, ON

ResearchBlogging.orgLiu SY, Walter S, Marden J, Rehkopf DH, Kubzansky LD, Nguyen T, & Glymour MM (2014). Genetic vulnerability to diabetes and obesity: Does education offset the risk? Social science & medicine (1982) PMID: 25245452

 

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Freshmen 15 Are Neither 15 Nor Limited to Freshmen

sharma-obesity-black-studentsAccording to popular belief, the first year of college can be associated with a 15 pound weight gain – often referred to as “the freshman 15″.

Now, a study by Micheal Fedewa and colleagues from the University of Georgia, look at the weight trajectory in college studies in a paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Their systematic review and meta-analysis includes 49 studies evaluating the effect of the first year of college (and beyond) on the dependent body weight and or %body fat.

While the researchers found a statistically significant change in body weight among students, the average weight gain was a rather modest 1.6 kg during a typical 4-year college career. Interestingly, this finding is similar to previous estimates suggesting average increases ranging from 1.1. to 2.1 kg in the first year of college.

Thus, the actual average weight gain comes nowhere close to the notorious “15″.

Also, the authors found that most of the weight gain is progressive and continues throughout college – there is little evidence that most of the weight gained (if any) happens in the first year.

Thus, despite individual anecdotal experiences of weight gain, that may sometimes approach or even exceed 15 lbs, there is little scientific basis or reason for concern about the freshman 15.

Or, as the authors put it,

These results suggest that the “Freshman 15” may not pose a significant risk to students’ health, but unhealthy behaviors throughout college may lead to unfavorable changes in body weight, as weight change does not appear to stabilize as previously reported.

Perhaps it is time to put this idea to rest and move on to study issues that may be more important than this.

@DrSharma
Guelph, ON

ResearchBlogging.orgFedewa MV, Das BM, Evans EM, & Dishman RK (2014). Change in Weight and Adiposity in College Students: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. American journal of preventive medicine PMID: 25241201

 

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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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