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
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Friday, November 21, 2014

Obesity Myth: Exercise is the Best Way to Lose Weight

sharma-obesity-exercise2Here is what we had to say about the role of exercise in weight management in our recent article published in Canadian Family Physician:

There is now a consistent body of evidence showing that exercise alone, despite a range of health benefits associated with regular exercise, results in rather modest weight loss (less than 2 kg on average).

One of the explanations is that exercise is often accompanied by an increase in sedentary activities and appetite and a decrease in dietary restraint that counteract the increased energy expenditure of exercise.

However, increased exercise has been shown to reduce visceral adiposity (even with minimal changes in body weight).

Individuals who include regular exercise and active living as part of a weight-loss program are more likely to improve their overall health and keep the weight off.22 This latter finding might be attributable to the effect of regular exercise on caloric intake rather than on caloric expenditure per se.

Exercise alone generally promotes modest weight loss; however, individuals who exercise regularly might improve their overall health independent of weight loss and are more likely to keep their weight off.

@DrSharma
Wellington, NZ

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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Should A Political Prescription For Obesity Not Also Include Better Treatments?

sharma-obesity-policy1In the latest issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, the editors opine on the need for a political prescription for obesity – in short taxation and regulation of  high-calorie and nutrient-poor food products as the only viable approach to the obesity epidemic. As may be expected, they use the analogy of tobacco as a justification for this approach (given that actual data from government intervention on reducing the consumption of the said foods is so far lacking).

Be that as it may, what caught my attention in the article was the following passage:

“Treating obesity does not work well; preventing it would be better. The global failure to manage obesity, now considered by the American Medical Association to be a disease, may be considered a failure of the evidence-based medicine approach to treating disease….We know that most restrictive diets result in only short-term weight loss that frequently reverses and worsens in the long term, but dietary changes that are sustainable as a lifestyle choice may work. Physical activity is not enough to prevent or treat obesity and overweight, unless it is combined with some kind of dietary intervention. Family and community interventions may work somewhat better than interventions aimed at individuals, but their implementation is patchy. Bariatric surgery has good results in the treatment of morbid obesity, but its use is always going to be limited and a last resort. Pharmaceutical agents may work to some extent, but may have nasty adverse effects.”

The interesting thought here is that the authors parade the lack of effective treatment as a justification for prevention, when I would rather have used this state of affairs to call for greater investments in finding better treatments.

Not that I am not in favour of prevention – indeed, I am all for preventing heart disease, diabetes, cancer, depression, bone and joint disease and everything else.

But, at no point would I ever call for prevention as an alternative to finding better treatments for any of these conditions.

The fact that people still die of cancer should never justify us abandoning the search for better treatments – indeed, as far I can see, the whole Pink Ribbon Industry apparently focusses on “finding the cure” – not on “finding better ways to prevent breast cancer” (even if most experts believe that much of breast cancer is indeed preventable).

Just because  we still have no effective treatments for a host of other conditions, should we abandon the search for better treatments for these conditions?

In short, what irks me most about this article is not the call for prevention – indeed I am all for it!

But when the lack of effective (or safe) treatments is used to justify this call, I must disagree.

No matter how much we restrict and tax the food industry, there will always be people around, who despite their best efforts, will struggle with excess weight. Indeed, there is no reason to believe (at least not for anyone who understands the physiology of obesity) that any form of “prevention” will reverse the epidemic in those who already have the problem – i.e. in about 6 Mill Canadians. (even if we somehow miraculously reduced obesity in the population by 30% through “preventive measures” (well beyond even the most optimistic predictions) – we would still need treatments for 4 Mill Canadians – adults and kids!)

The longer we wait to find and implement effective treatments, the longer these individuals will struggle with a condition that should deserve the same efforts at treatment as we afford individuals with other “lifestyle” diseases (including heart disease, diabetes and cancer).

Let us not forget that treatments for other common conditions (e.g. hypertension, hypercholesterolemia and diabetes) were once lacking – today millions around the world benefit from these treatments – indeed, it is probably safe to say that these medications probably save more lives each year than any known efforts at regulating industry that I know of.

Indeed, if we wish to find more effective ways to manage obesity, we need to vastly increase our efforts at finding better treatments – not abandon them.

Prevention is never an alternative to also having effective treatments. The two go hand-in-hand.

@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB

 

 

 

 

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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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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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