Thursday, November 27, 2014

Would You Like Some Guilt With That Popcorn?

popcornYesterday, I blogged about the McKinsey discussion paper that calls on governments to throw everything they’ve got at the obesity epidemic – proven or unproven – anything is better than nothing.

That said, it is indeed timely that this week, the US-FDA announced sweeping regulations on putting calories on menus, not just in fastfood restaurants but also in grocery stores, vending machines, and movie theatres.

Personally, I am all for it – never mind that we have yet to show that providing this information at the point of purchase actually changes behaviour of the target population (namely the people who do need to watch their calories) – I, for one, do find this information helpful.

Thus, every time I visit a McDonalds restaurant (yes, I do), I study the nutritional information that this restaurant chain has been making available to any customer who bothers to ask for decades.

Indeed, I do admit to deriving a kind of voyeuristic pleasure in seeing those astonishingly high numbers on certain food items and cannot help myself from inwardly shaking my head at the poor schmucks who order those foods.

What I do wonder, however, is whether knowing these numbers has ever actually changed my own behaviour.

Take movie popcorn for instance – I love it! (interestingly this is a habit that I only developed since moving to Canada).

Not that I am not aware that a large popcorn can easily have all the calories I need for the rest of the weekend – yup, I know that – indeed, I am making an “informed choice”.

In the few milliseconds I spend thinking about whether or not I may wish to skip the popcorn this time, those calorie numbers do regularly flash through my mind – in the end, the popcorn always wins.

So how will having the numbers up on the menu board staring in my face change things for me?

My guess is that I’ll still buy the popcorn, except now it will come with an even larger portion of guilt than before.

Obviously, with the numbers up there for everyone to see (including the people in line behind me), there may well now be an added tinge of embarrassment on top of the guilt.

Well, I may not be the typical consumer or even the target of these measures – after all these are meant for the people who could obviously do with some nudging towards eating a healthier diet (not really sure why I am excluding myself from this list).

Yet, I don’t mind these measures, I have always considered this a good idea.

But will having these numbers staring me in the face everytime I eat out change my consumption of popcorn? Probably not.

Will they make me think thrice (I already think twice)? Perhaps.

So to sum up, funnily enough, I find myself in full support of this measure – even if I am not really sure why.

I guess anything is better than nothing.

@DrSharma
Frankfurt, Germany

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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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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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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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