As one may well imagine, changes in body weight (up or down) can profoundly affect a vast number of hormonal and metabolic pathways.
Now, a team of researchers led by Brian Piening and colleagues, in a paper published in Cell Systems used a broad “omics” based approach to study what happens when people lose ore gain weight.
Specifically, the goal of this study was to:
(1) assemble a comprehensive map of the molecular changes in humans (in circulating blood as well as the microbiome) that occur over the course of a carefully controlled weight gain and their reversibility with weight loss; and
(2) determine whether inulin sensitive (IS) and insulin resistant (IR) individuals who are matched for degree of obesity demonstrate unique biomolecular signatures and/or pathway activation during similar weight gain.
The study included 23 carefully selected healthy participants with BMI 25–35 kg/m2, were studied. Samples were collected at baseline. They then underwent a 30-day weight gain period (average 2.8 kg), followed by an eucaloric diet for 7 days, at which point a second fasted sample of blood and stool was collected. Each participant then underwent a caloric-restricted diet under nutritionist supervision for a subsequent 60-day period designed to return each participant back to his/her initial baseline weight, at which point a third set of fasted samples of blood and stool were collected. A subset of participants returned for a follow-up sampling approximately 3 months after the end of the perturbation.Insulin resistance was assessed at baseline using a modified insulin suppression test.
The large-scale multi-omics assays performed at all time points on each participant included genomics, proteomics, metabolomics and microbiomics.
Despite some differences between the IS and IR group (particularly in differential regulation of inflammatory/immune response pathways), overall, molecular changes were dominated by inter-personal variation (i.e. changes within the same individual), which accounted for more than 90% of the observed variance in some cases (e.g., cytokines). The most striking changes with weight gain were in inflammation response pathways (despite the rather modest weight gain) and were (fortunately) reversed by weight loss.
As the authors note,
“Comparing the variation in cytokine levels between multiple baselines in a single individual versus across individuals, we observed a striking difference: for almost all cytokines, the within-individual coefficient of variation was under 20%, whereas the variation across individuals was 40%–60%. This shows that our baseline cytokine profiles are unique to the individual, a point that has significant implications for one-size-fits-all clinical cytokine assays for the detection and/or monitoring of disease.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, proteomics and metabolomics measurements had a substantial unexplained component (30% and 35%, respectively), highlighting the presence of unaccounted factors (e.g., food, exercise, and other changing environmental factors) or a subject-specific reaction to the perturbation.
Notably, not all of the responses we observed were consistent across IR and IS participants.
“In particular, for the microbiome, we observed that the microbe A. muciniphila was weight gain responsive only in insulin-sensitive participants. The abundance of this particular microbe in IR individuals did not change across perturbations and was barely or not detectable in most IR individuals.”
Clearly, these findings highlight the fact that each individual is biochemically unique, which the authors note, makes a strong case for personalized analysis in medicine.
Perhaps more importantly for researchers, nearly all of the data are publicly available, enabling exploration of inter-omic relationships and alterations across a longitudinal perturbation, thus providing a valuable resource for the development and validation of bioinformatic tools and pipelines integrating disparate data types.
Another article in the 2018 JAMA special issue on obesity is one by Susan and Jack Yanovski and deals with the issue of using a precision or “personalised” approach to obesity prevention and management.
As we know, there are myriad factors that can lead to obesity (environmental, genetic, psychological, medical, etc., etc., etc.), with each patient having their own story and set of drivers and barriers.
Furthermore, we know that for any given treatment (whether behavioural, medical, or surgical) there is wide variation in individual outcomes.
So, being able to match the right treatment to the right patient, or even better, reliably predict a given patient’s response to a specific treatment could potentially improve outcomes and reduce patient burden and costs.
However, as the authors note, currently the only real predictor to treatment response is how well patients respond during the early part of treatment. Thus, we know that patient who lose a significant amount of weight during the first few weeks of medical treatment, tend to have the best long-term success in terms of weight loss.
However, this approach is also rather limited. In my own practice, I regularly see patients, who initially do well with behavioural, medical or surgical treatments, but eventually struggle, as well as patients who take longer to respond to a treatment before ultimately doing fine in the long term.
We are of course a long way off from having any kind of genetic or other testing that would reliably predict patient responses to treatment.
While this may become possible in the future, I am not holding my breath.
Not only is every patient’s story different, but the many factors that can determine response (societal, behavioural, psychological, biological, etc.) are almost endless and, moreover, can even vary over time in a given individual.
In fact, for most complex chronic diseases (e.g. diabetes, hypertension, depression, etc.), finding the best treatment for a given patient continues to be “trial and error”, or in other words, “empirical”.
Despite all the progress in genetic research, this has not really changed for most other complex chronic diseases like hypertension, type 2 diabetes, or dyslipidemia (despite a few rare but notable exceptions).
Moveover, as the authors point out, there are many other factors that will determine whether or not a given patient even has access to certain treatments, irrespective of whether or not that treatment is indeed the best treatment for them.
Currently, the best we can do, is to try to understand the drivers and barriers that each of our patients face and discuss with them the best treatment options available to them given their situation and circumstances.
Whether a more precise approach is ever likely (as the authors hope), clearly remains to be seen, but based on the progress made in for other complex chronic conditions, for which similar approaches have been tried, I am perhaps far less optimistic than the authors.
But, then again, I am happy to be proven wrong.
If there is one thing we know for sure about obesity management, it is the sad fact, that no diet, exercise, medication, not even bariatric surgery, will permanently reset the body’s tendency to defend and regain its body weight to its set point – this generally being the highest weight that has been achieved and maintained for a notable length of time.
Thus, any effective long-term treatment has to offset the complex neurobiology that will eventually doom every weight-loss attempt to “failure” (no, anecdotes don’t count!).
Just how complex and overpowering this biological system that regulates body weight is, is described in a comprehensive review by the undisputed leaders in this field (Michael Schwartz, Randy Seeley, Eric Ravussin, Rudolph Leibel and colleagues) published in Endocrine Reviews. Indeed the paper is nothing less than a “Scientific Statement” from the venerable Endocrine Society, or, in other words, these folks know what they’re talking about when it comes to the science of energy balance.
As the authors remind us,
“In its third year of existence, the Endocrine Society elected Sir Harvey Cushing as President. In his presidential address, he advocated strongly in favor of adopting the scientific method and abandoning empiricism to better inform the diagnosis and treatment of endocrine disease. In doing so, Cushing helped to usher in the modern era of endocrinology and with it, the end of organo-therapy. (In an interesting historical footnote, Cushing’s Energy Homeostasis and the Physiological Control of Body-Fat Stores presidential address was given in , the same year that insulin was discovered.)”
Over 30 pages, backed by almost 350 scientific citations, the authors outline in excruciating detail just how complex the biological system that regulates, defends, and restores body weight actually is. Moreover, this system is not static but rather, is strongly influenced and modulated by environmental and societal factors.
Indeed, after reading this article, it seems that the very notion, that average Jane or Joe could somehow learn to permanently overcome this intricately fine-tuned system (or the societal drivers) with will power alone is almost laughable (hats off to the very few brave and determined individuals, who can actually do this – you have climbed to the top of Mount Everest and decided to camp out there for the foreseeable future – I wish you all the best!).
Thus, the authors are confident that,
“The identification of neuromolecular mechanisms that integrate short-term and long-term control of feeding behavior, such that calorie intake precisely matches energy expenditure over long time intervals, will almost certainly enable better preventive and therapeutic approaches to obesity.”
Sadly, despite all we have learnt about this system, we are still far from fully understanding it. Thus, the canonical molecular/ cellular signaling pathway: LEP → LEPR → POMC, AgRP → PC → MC4R is just one pathway in a complex network of multiple interacting and sometimes redundant pathways that involve virtually every part of the brain.
Also, the effect of environmental factors appears to be far more complex than most people think. Thus,
“During sensitive periods of development, ontogenic processes in both brain and peripheral organs can be modified so as to match anticipated environmental conditions. Although many exposures during development could potentially predispose to obesity in adulthood, we focus here on two that some researchers think contribute to the secular trends in obesity: parental obesity and exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs).”
Throw in the role of gut bugs, infections, and societal factors, and it is easy to see why no simple solution to the obesity epidemic are in sight (let alone a range of effective long-term treatments like we have for most other common chronic diseases).
As for solutions,
“To be viable, theories of obesity pathogenesis must account not only for how excess body fat is acquired, but also for how excess body fat comes to be biologically defended. To date, the preponderance of research has focused on the former. However, we must consider the possibility that some (perhaps even most) mechanisms underlying weight gain are distinct from those responsible for the biological defense of excess fat mass. A key question, therefore, is how the energy homeostasis system comes to defend an elevated level of fat mass (analogous to the defense of elevated blood pressure in patients with hypertension). Answering this question requires an improved understanding of the neuro-molecular elements that underlie a “defended” level of body fat. What are the molecular/neuroanatomic predicates that help establish and defend a “set point” for adiposity? How do these elements regulate feeding behavior and/or energy expenditure, so as to achieve long-term energy balance? By what mechanisms is an apparently higher set point established and defended in individuals who are obese?” [sic]
“Given that recovery of lost weight (the normal, physiological response to weight loss irrespective of one’s starting weight) is the largest single obstacle to effective long-term weight loss, we cannot overstate the importance of a coherent understanding of obesity-associated alterations of the energy homeostasis system.”
There is much work to be done. Whether or not, in this climate of anti- and pseudo-science, funding for such fundamental work will actually be made available, is anyone’s guess.
Next, in this miniseries on arguments for and against calling obesity a disease, I turn to the issue of stigma.
One of the biggest arguments against calling obesity, is the fear that doing so can increase stigma against people living with obesity.
This is nonsense, because I do not think it is at all possible for anything to make stigma and the discrimination of people living with obesity worse than it already is.
If anything, calling obesity a disease (defined as excess or abnormal body fat that impairs your health), could well serve to reduce that stigma by changing the narrative around obesity.
The current narrative sees obesity largely as a matter of personal choice involving poor will power to control your diet and unwillingness to engage in even a modest amount of regular physical activity.
In contrast, the term ‘disease’ conjures up the notion of complex biology including genetics, epigenetics, neurohormonal dysregulation, environmental toxins, mental health issues and other factors including social determinants of health, that many will accept are beyond the simple control of the individual.
This is not to say that other diseases do not carry stigma. This has and remains the case for diseases ranging from HIV/AIDS to depression – but, the stigma surrounding these conditions has been vastly reduced by changing the narrative of these illnesses.
Today, we are more likely to think of depression (and other mental illnesses) as a problem related to “chemicals in the brain”, than something that people can pull out of with sheer motivation and will power.
Perhaps changing the public narrative around obesity, from simply a matter of motivation and will power, to one that invokes the complex sociopsychobiology that really underlies this disorder, will, over time, also help reduce the stigma of obesity.
Once we see obesity as something that can affect anyone (it can), for which we have no easy solutions (we don’t), and which often requires medical or surgical treatment (it does) best administered by trained and regulated health professionals (like for other diseases), we can perhaps start destigmatizing this condition and change the climate of shame and blame that people with this disease face everyday.
Continuing in my miniseries on reasons why obesity should be considered a disease, I turn to the idea that obesity is largely driven by biology (in which I include psychology, which is also ultimately biology).
This is something people dealing with mental illness discovered a long time ago – depression is “molecules in your brain” – well, so is obesity!
Let me explain.
Humans throughout evolutionary history, like all living creatures, were faced with a dilemma, namely to deal with wide variations in food availability over time (feast vs. famine).
Biologically, this means that they were driven in times of plenty to take up and store as many calories as they could in preparation for bad times – this is how our ancestors survived to this day.
While finding and eating food during times of plenty does not require much work or motivation, finding food during times of famine requires us to go to almost any length and risks to find food. This risk-taking behaviour is biologically ensured by tightly linking food intake to the hedonic reward system, which provides the strong intrinsic motivator to put in the work required to find foods and consume them beyond our immediate needs.
Indeed, it is this link between food and pleasure that explains why we would go to such lengths to further enhance the reward from food by converting raw ingredients into often complex dishes involving hours of toiling in the kitchen. Human culinary creativity knows no limits – all in the service of enhancing pleasure.
Thus, our bodies are perfectly geared towards these activities. When we don’t eat, a complex and powerful neurohormonal response takes over (aka hunger), till the urge becomes overwhelming and forces us to still our appetites by seeking, preparing and consuming foods – the hungrier we get, the more we seek and prepare foods to deliver even greater hedonic reward (fat, sugar, salt, spices).
The tight biological link between eating and the reward system also explains why we so often eat in response to emotions – anxiety, depression, boredom, happiness, fear, loneliness, stress, can all make us eat.
But eating is also engrained into our social behaviour (again largely driven by biology) – as we bond to our mothers through food, we bond to others through eating. Thus, eating has been part of virtually every celebration and social gathering for as long as anyone can remember. Food is celebration, bonding, culture, and identity – all features, the capacity for which, is deeply engrained into our biology.
In fact, our own biology perfectly explains why we have gone to such lengths to create the very environment that we currently live in. Our biology (paired with our species’ limitless creativity and ingenuity) has driven us to conquer famine (at least in most parts of the world) by creating an environment awash in highly palatable foods, nutrient content (and health) be damned!
Thus, even without delving any deeper into the complex genetics, epigenetics, or neuroendocrine biology of eating behaviours, it is not hard to understand why much of today’s obesity epidemic is simply the result of our natural behaviours (biology) acting in an unnatural environment.
So if most of obesity is the result of “normal” biology, how does obesity become a disease?
Because, even “normal” biology becomes a disease, when it affects health.
There are many instances of this.
For example, in the same manner that the biological system responsible for our eating behaviour and energy balance responds to an “abnormal” food environment by promoting excessive weight gain to the point that it can negatively affect our health, other biological systems respond to abnormal environmental cues to affect their respective organ systems to produce illnesses.
Our immune systems designed to differentiate between “good” and “bad”, when underexposed to “good” at critical times in our development (thanks to our modern environments), treat it as “bad”, thereby creating debilitating and even fatal allergic responses to otherwise “harmless” substances like peanuts or strawberries.
Our “normal” glucose homeostasis system, when faced with insulin resistance (resulting from increasingly sedentary life circumstances), provoke hyperinsulinemia with ultimate failure of the beta-cell, resulting in diabetes.
Similarly, our “normal” biological responses to lack of sleep or constant stress, result in a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.
Our “normal” biological responses to drugs and alcohol can result in chronic drug and alcohol addiction.
Our “normal” biological response to cancerogenous substances (including sunlight) can result in cancers.
The list goes on.
Obviously, not everyone responds to the same environment in the same manner – thanks to biological variability (another important reason why our ancestors have made it through the ages).
But, you may argue, if obesity is largely the result of “normal” biology responding to an “abnormal” environment, then isn’t it really the environment that is causing the disease?
That may well be the case, but it doesn’t matter for the definition of disease. Many diseases are the result for the environment interacting with biology and yes, changing the environment could indeed be the best treatment (or even cure) for that disease.
Thus, even if pollution causes asthma and the ultimate “cure” for asthma is to rid the air of pollutants, asthma, while it exists, is still a disease for the person who has it.
All that counts is whether or not the biological condition at hand is affecting your health or not.
The only reason I bring up biology at all, is to counter the argument that obesity is simply stupid people making poor “choices” – one you consider the biology, nothing about obesity is “simple”.