This morning, I am presenting a plenary talk in Berlin to about 200 colleagues involved in childhood obesity prevention.
The 1-day symposium is hosted by Plattform Ernährung und Bewegung e.V. (Platform for Nutrition and Physical Activity), a German consortium of health professionals as well as public and private stakeholders in public health.
Although, as readers are well aware, I am by no means an expert on childhood obesity, I do believe that what we have learnt about the complex socio-psycho-biology of adult obesity in many ways has important relevance for the prevention and management of childhood obesity.
Not only do important biological factors (e.g. genetics and epigenetics) act on the infant, but, infants and young children are exposed to the very same societal, emotional, and biological factors that promote and sustain adult obesity.
Thus, children do not grow up in isolation from their parents (or the adult environment), nor do other biological rules apply to their physiology.
It should thus be obvious, that any approach focussing on children without impacting or changing the adult environment will have little impact on over all obesity.
This has now been well appreciated in the management of childhood obesity, where most programs now take a “whole-family” approach to addressing the determinants of excess weight gain. In fact, some programs go as far as to focus exclusively on helping parents manage their own weights in the expectation (and there is some data to support this) that this will be the most effective way to prevent obesity in their offspring.
As important as the focus on childhood obesity may be, I would be amiss in not reminding the audience that the overwhelming proportion of adults living with obesity, were normal weight (even skinny!) kids and did not begin gaining excess weight till much later in life. Thus, even if we were somehow (magically?) to completely prevent and abolish childhood obesity, it is not at all clear that this would have a significant impact on reducing the number of adults living with obesity, at least not in the foreseeable future.
Let us also remember that treating childhood obesity is by no means any easier than managing obesity in adults – indeed, one may argue that effectively treating obesity in kids may be even more difficult, given the the most effective tools to managing this chronic disease (e.g. medications, surgery) are not available to those of us involved in pediatric obesity management.
Thus, I certainly do not envy my pediatric colleagues in their struggles to provide meaningful obesity management to their young clients.
I am not sure how my somewhat sobering talk will be received by this public health audience, but then again, I don’t think I was expected to fully toe the line when it comes to exclusively focussing on nutrition and activity (as important as these factors may be) as an effective way to prevent or even manage childhood obesity.
Thus, following weight loss, not only does the body need fewer calories, doing the same amount of physical work uses fewer calories than before (the joke is that, if you ran 5K a day to lose weight, you have to run 10K a day to keep it off).
Now, a study by Maria Fernström and colleagues, published in Obesity Surgery, shows increased mitochondrial efficiency following bariatric surgery.
The researchers performed skeletal muscle biopsies in 11 women before and at 6 months after gastric bypass surgery.
Measurements in isolated mitochondria showed a marked increase in coupled respiration (state 3) and overall mitochondrial capacity (P/O ratio) with a non-significant increase in uncoupled (state 4) respiration.
Thus, at 6 months following gastric bypass surgery, both the mitochondrial capacity for coupled, i.e., ATP-generating, respiration increased as well as the P/O ratio improved.
As the authors note, not only would this increased “fuel efficiency” in part explain the decreased basal metabolism often associated with weight loss but also the propensity for weight regain that often follows weight-loss interventions.
Obviously, due to lack of a control group, this study does not demonstrate that these changes are in any way specific to weight-loss following bariatric surgery.
Also, given that the nadir of weight loss is generally not achieved until about 18 months following surgery, the changes observed in this study may not represent the maximum increase in mitochondrial efficiency to be achieved with further weight loss.
Continuing in my miniseries on why obesity (defined here, as excess or abnormal body fat that affects your health) should be considered a disease, is the simple observation that obesity responds less to lifestyle treatments than most people think.
Yes, the internet abounds with before and after pictures of people who have “conquered” obesity with diet, exercise, or both, but in reality, long-term success in “lifestyle” management of obesity is rare and far between.
Indeed, if the findings from the National Weight Control Registry have taught us anything, it is just how difficult and how much work it takes to lose weight and keep it off.
Even in the context of clinical trials conducted in highly motivated volunteers receiving more support than you would ever be able to reasonably provide in clinical practice, average weight loss at 12 – 24 months is often a modest 3-5%.
Thus, for the vast majority of people living with obesity, “lifestyle” treatment is simply not effective enough – at least not as a sustainable long-term strategy in real life.
While this may seem disappointing to many (especially, to those in the field, who have dedicated their lives to promoting “healthy” lifestyles as the solution to obesity), in reality, this is not very different from the real-life success of “lifestyle” interventions for other “lifestyle” diseases.
Thus, while there is no doubt that diet and exercise are important cornerstones for the management of diabetes or hypertension, most practitioners (and patients) will agree, that very few people with these conditions can be managed by lifestyle interventions alone.
Indeed, I would put to you that without medications, only a tiny proportion of people living with diabetes, hypertension, or dyslipidemia would be able to “control” these conditions simply by changing their lifestyles.
Not because diet and exercise are not effective for these conditions, but because diet and exercise are simply not enough.
The same is true for obesity. It is not that diet and exercise are useless – they absolutely remain a cornerstone of treatment. But, by themselves, they are simply not effective enough to control obesity in the vast majority of people who have it.
This is because, diet and exercise do not alter the biology that drives and sustains obesity. If anything, diet and exercise work against the body’s biology, which is working hard to defend body weight at all costs.
Thus, it is time we accept this reality and recognise that without pharmacological and/or surgical treatments that interfere with this innate biology, we will not be able to control obesity in the majority of patients.
Whether we like it or not, I predict that within a decade, clinical management of obesity will look no different than current management of any other chronic disease. Most patients will require both “lifestyle” and probably a combination of anti-obesity medications to control their obesity.
This does not take away from the importance of diet and exercise – as important as they are, they are simply not enough.
Despite what “lifestyle” enthusiasts will have us believe, diet and exercise are no more important (or effective) for the treatment of obesity, than they are for the treatment of hypertension, diabetes, dyslipidemia, depression, or any other condition that responds to “lifestyle” interventions.
In the end, most patients will require more effective treatments to manage their obesity and all of the comorbidities that come with it. The sooner we develop and make accessible such treatments, the sooner we can really help our patients.
This, according to a study by Ruth Brown and colleagues from Toronto’s York University, published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise.
The study included 58 adult men and women of either normal weight (NW) or overweight (OW), who reported either attempting (WL) or not attempting weight loss (noWL)
Following 25 mins of exercise on a treadmill at either a moderate (60% HRmax) or a vigorous intensity (75% HRmax), participants were asked to estimated the number of calories they expended through exercise and create a meal that they believed to be calorically equivalent to the amount of calories they had just burnt.
Both the moderate and intense exercise groups were on average spectacularly wrong in their estimates.
In contrast, the active weight loss (WL) groups appeared to do far better at estimating energy consumption than the non-WL groups.
As an example, following vigorous exercise, the OW-noWL overestimated energy expenditure by 72%, and overestimated the calories in their food by 37%.
Although the WL groups did better, all groups showed a wide range of over and underestimation (-280 kcal to +702 kcal).
These findings show that while most people tend to over or underestimate caloric expenditure with exercise, overweight adults who are not attempting weight loss may be even more off the mark than others.
The most obvious solution would be to use some kind of monitor that does a better job of predicting calories consumed that just guessing.
That is of course, if overcompensating is not your goal (as in people who actually gain weight when they begin exercising).
For those interested in staying in energy balance, perhaps simply stepping on the scale regularly during the week should be enough.
For those interested in losing weight, they may need to be reminded that exercise (alone) is actually a pretty inefficient way to lose weight, so the calories burnt during exercise probably don’t matter all that much for weight management (despite all other benefits of exercise – its the calories you eat or drink that count).
Yesterday, I attended the inaugural networking event of the Canadian Obesity Network’s Toronto Chapter. Judging by the enthusiasm of the almost 100 folks who came out to this event, this chapter appears off to a great start.
As expected for any CON event, the participants came from virtually every walk of interest in obesity – from professional to personal – research, prevention, clinic, policy, industry, NGOs.
Hopefully, we will see similar activities and chapters starting across Canada in the coming months – the success off this event shows that there is a dire need for local networking to address local issues related to obesity prevention and management.
For more information on the Toronto Chapter (CON-YYZ) click here.
For more information on how to start a CON chapter in your city click here.