Over a decade ago, together with over 120 colleagues from across Canada, representing over 30 Canadian Universities and Institutions, I helped found the Canadian Obesity Network with the support of funding from the Canadian National Centres of Excellence Program.
Since then the Canadian Obesity Network has grown into a large and influential organisation, with well over 20,000 professional members and public supporters, with a significant range across Canada and beyond.
During the course of its existence, the Network has organised countless educational events for health professionals, provided training and networking opportunities to a host of young researchers and trainees, developed a suite of obesity management tools (e.g. the 5As of obesity management for adults, kids and during pregnancy), held National Obesity Summits and National Student Meetings. raised funds for obesity research, the list of achievements goes on and on.
Most importantly, the Network has taken on important new roles in public engagement, voicing the needs and concerns of Canadians living with obesity, and advocating for better access to evidence-based prevention and treatments for children and adults across Canada.
To better reflect this expanded mission and vision, the Board of Directors has decided to convert the Canadian Obesity Network into a registered health charity under the new name – Obesity Canada – Obésité Canada.
So with one sad eye, I look back and hope that the Canadian Obesity Network rests in peace – Long Live Obesity Canada!
A wide range of socio‐cultural and environmental factors can determine changes in ingestive behaviour. Thus, traditions or habitual patterns, belief systems, peer pressure, availability of foods, and the context in which these are presented and consumed can all significantly predispose to or prompt increased caloric consumption. Moving to a neighbourhood with more fast food outlets, exposure to food advertising, decreasing affordability of healthy foods, or increased professional or social pressure can all influence eating behaviour. Thus, for example, taking up a job that requires extensive wining and dining of clients is likely to increase caloric consumption. Similarly, regularly partaking in social activities that revolve around eating and drinking can promote caloric excess. Not surprisingly, the frequency of eating out is an important determinant of food quality. As many of the factors that influence overconsumption are subtle (e.g. plate size, food variety, ambient distractions, etc.) and do not generally involve conscious decision‐making, exposure to an environment that promotes ‘mindless’ overeating will promote weight gain. For individuals in lower socioeconomic class, affordability and availability may limit access to a healthy nutritious diet. Lack of knowledge about healthy eating may also contribute. When present, identifying, recognizing and acknowledging the possible role of the socio‐cultural factors that promote overconsumption or pose important barriers to eating a healthy, calorically balanced diet is the first step to devising strategies to mitigate these influences or overcome these barriers. In addition to nutritional counselling patients in whom strong socio‐cultural determinants of obesity are identified may benefit from counselling by a social or public health worker.
Commentary: as important as socio-cultural factors may be, they are by far not the only factors affecting ingestive behaviour – more on this in coming posts.
Most healthy women, who live long enough, will eventually become unhealthy.
So it should not at all come as a surprise to anyone, that the vast majority of women with “healthy” obesity (a misnomer, as in my view, the medical term “obesity” should only apply to people who already have health problems attributable to abnormal or excess body fat), eventually end up with “unhealthy” obesity.
This, essentially, is the gist of a paper by Nathalie Eckel and colleagues, published in The Lancet.
In their study of 90,257 participants of the Nurses Health Study, who were followed-up from 1980 to 2010 for incident cardiovascular disease (representing over 2 million person-years of follow-up), they found that around 80% of metabolically healthy women with obesity converted to metabolically unhealthy obesity over the course of follow-up.
But one might say that this was only marginally higher that the 70% of metabolically healthy “normal weight” women, who also converted to metabolically unhealthy over the 20 years of observation. In fact, the population-attributable risk of the latter group was much higher, as it consisted of almost 10 times the number of women than in the former.
While the risk of cardiovascular disease was statistically elevated (by about 40%) in the metabolically healthy women with obesity, this risk was 243% higher in metabolically unhealthy women with normal weight, 260% higher in metabolically unhealthy women with overweight and 315% higher in metabolically unhealthy women with obesity, all compared to metabolically healthy women with normal weight.
So, yes, women with metabolically “healthy obesity” have a high risk of becoming metabolically unhealty and developing cardiovascular disease, so are metabolically healthy normal-weight women.
Overall, I believe it is safe to say that the vast majority of metabolically healthy women (regardless of body weight) will eventually become metabolically unhealthy, at which time their risk for cardiovascular disease increases.
Bottom line, everyone (not just women with obesity) will benefit from efforts to stay as metabolically healthy as possible for as long as possible – fortunately, we know that healthy diets and regular physical activity (while not necessarily preventing weight gain) can help maintain metabolic health, irrespective of current body weight.
Clearly, living as healthy as possible is not just good advice for women with obesity – who would have guessed?
p.s. although this was a study in women, I have no doubt whatsoever that the findings also apply to men – most metabolically healthy men will eventually become metabolically unhealthy over the course of their lifetime.
While at the level of the individual, clinicians are beginning to acknowledge the vast body of research now showing that “lifestyle” approaches to managing obesity (“eat-less move more”) result in minimal outcomes (3-5% sustainable weight loss at best), public health attempts to address the obesity epidemic continue to perpetuate the myth that obesity (and its prevention) is simply about getting people to eat better and move more (with very little evidence to show that such measures can be implemented at a population level to effect any noticeable change in obesity rates).
In an article I co-authored with Ximena Ramos-Salas, published in Current Obesity Reports, we provide an in-depth overview of current public health policies to address obesity in Canada and argue that the “narrative” underlying these policies is an important driver of weight-bias and discrimination and significantly hindering efforts to provide Canadians living with obesity better access to obesity prevention and treatment efforts.
As we state in the article (based on original research by Ramos-Salas and others),
“A critical review of Canadian obesity prevention policies and strategies revealed five prevailing narratives about obesity: “(1) childhood obesity threatens the health of future generations and must be prevented; (2) obesity can be prevented through healthy eating and physical activity; (3) obesity is an individual behavior problem; (4) achieving a healthy body weight should be a population health target; and (5) obesity is a risk factor for other chronic diseases not a disease in itself”. These narratives create the opportunity for Canadian obesity policy recommendations to focus mainly on individual-based healthy eating and physical activity interventions. By simplifying the causes of obesity as unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity, these policies may be contributing to the belief that obesity can be solely controlled through individual behaviors. This belief is a fundamental driver of weight bias.”
This “world-view” of obesity at the level of policy makers has a significant impact on the willingness and capacity of health systems to provide access to evidence-based obesity treatments to the nearly 7 million Canadian adults and children living with this chronic disease – in fact, the unwillingness to even consider obesity a chronic disease is a big part of the problem.
“..the conceptualization of obesity as a risk factor in public health policies has implications for government action, by prioritizing prevention over treatment strategies and potentially alienating Canadians who already have obesity. The review concludes that existing Canadian public health policies and strategies (a) are not sufficiently comprehensive (i.e., solely focused on prevention and mainly focused on children; exclude evidence-based management approaches; are not person-centered); (b) are based on reductionist obesity models (i.e., models that cast shame and blame on individuals by focusing on individuals’ responsibility for their weight); and (c) do not account for individual heterogeneity in body size and weight (i.e., generalize weight and health outcomes at the population level).”
In contrast we suggest that,
“Adopting a chronic disease framework for obesity would imply that both prevention and management strategies need to be implemented. Within this chronic disease context, public health should ensure that strategies do not have unintended consequences for individuals and populations, such as perpetuating weight bias. There is now sufficient evidence demonstrating that weight bias and obesity stigma are fundamental drivers of health inequalities. Public health has an opportunity to leverage existing health promotion frameworks such as the health for all policy framework and the global plan of action on social determinants of health to address weight bias and obesity stigma”.
Based on the analyses presented in this paper, we make the following recommendations:
Canadian provincial and territorial governments, employers, and the health insurance industry should officially adopt the position of the Canadian Medical Association and the World Health Organization that obesity is a chronic disease and orient their approach/resources accordingly.
Canadian provincial and territorial governments should recognize that weight bias and obesity stigma are significant barriers to helping people with obesity and enshrine rights in provincial/territorial human rights codes, workplace regulations, healthcare systems, and education policies.
In an era of people-centered health care, public health and health system decision makers should engage people with obesity in the development of policies and strategies. Having active participation of individuals with obesity can help change negative attitudes and beliefs about obesity and facilitate the development of compassionate and equitable health promotion strategies.
Employers should recognize and treat obesity as a chronic disease and provide coverage for evidence-based obesity treatments for their employees through health benefit plans.
Provincial and territorial governments should increase training for health professionals on obesity prevention and management.
Existing Canadian Clinical Practice Guidelines for the management and treatment of obesity in adults should be updated to reflect advances in obesity management and treatment in order to support the development of evidence-based programs and strategies by health systems, employers and health insurance companies.
Achieving and maintaining competencies is an ongoing challenge for all health professionals. But in an area like obesity, where most will have received rather rudimentary training (if any), most health professionals will likely be starting from scratch.
So what exactly must you expect of a health professional involved in the care of individuals living with obesity.
This is the subject of a white paper on “Provider Competencies for the Prevention and Management of Obesity“, developed with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
The panel of authors led by Don Bradley (Duke) and William Dietz (George Washington) included representatives from over 20 national (US) professional organisations.
The competencies expected cover the following 10 topics:
Competencies for Core Obesity Knowledge
1.0 Demonstrate a working knowledge of obesity as a disease
2.0 Demonstrate a working knowledge of the epidemiology of the obesity epidemic
3.0 Describe the disparate burden of obesity and approaches to mitigate it
Competencies for Interprofessional Obesity Care
4.0 Describe the benefits of working interprofessionally to address obesity to achieve results that cannot be achieved by a single health professional
5.0 Apply the skills necessary for effective interprofessional collaboration and integration of clinical and community care for obesity
Competencies for Patient Interactions Related to Obesity
6.0 Use patient-centered communication when working with individuals with obesity and others
7.0 Employ strategies to minimize bias towards and discrimination against people with obesity, including weight, body habitus, and the causes of obesity
8.0 Implement a range of accommodations and safety measures specific to people with obesity
9.0 Utilize evidence-based care/services for people with obesity or at risk for obesity
10.0 Provide evidence-based care/services for people with obesity comorbidities
Some of the topics include further subtopics that are deemed especially relevant.
Thus, for e.g., topic 6.o, regarding communication, includes the following sub-competencies:
6.1 Discuss obesity in a non-judgmental manner using person-first language in all communications
6.2 Incorporate the environmental, social, emotional, and cultural context of obesity into conversations with people with obesity
6.3 Use person- and family-centered communication (e.g., using active listening, empathy, autonomy support/shared decision making) to engage the patient and others
Similarly, topic 7.0, regarding the issue of weight bias and discrimination, includes the following sub-competencies:
7.1 Describe the ways in which weight bias and stigma impact health and wellbeing
7.2 Recognize and mitigate personal biases
7.3 Recognize and mitigate the weight biases of others
This is clearly a forward-thinking outline of competencies that we will hopefully come to expect of most health professionals, given that virtually every health professional, no matter their specialty or scope of practice, will likely be called upon to care for people living with obesity.
The full document can be downloaded here.