In the same manner in which a complete understanding of oedema requires the assessment of the complex physiological systems affecting fluid and sodium homeostasis, understanding obesity requires a comprehensive appreciation of the multitude of factors affecting energy intake and expenditure. Energy expenditure can be further subdivided into non‐activity (= resting metabolic rate + dietary‐induced thermogenesis) and activity thermogenesis (= non‐exercise + exercise activity thermogenesis). For simplicity’s sake, these three elements can be termed diet, metabolism and activity. A change in any one of these elements, if not balanced by corrective changes in the others, will result in a net change in energy balance, which, if positive, will result in caloric ‘retention’ and weight gain.
In subsequent posts, I will discuss the many factors that can affect energy metabolism, food intake, and physical activity and how changes to each (if not balance by corrective changes in the others) can lead to weight gain and often pose barriers to obesity management.
Several years ago, my colleague Raj Padwal and I published a paper in Obesity Reviews, where we outline a rational approach to an aetiological assessment of obesity.
As many readers may not have seen this paper, I will repost several of the key elements we discussed in it. Although some of our thinking has evolved since then, I believe the overall reasoning remain as relevant today, as when we first wrote the paper back in 2010:
Obesity is characterized by the accumulation of excess body fat and can be conceptualized as the physical manifestation of chronic energy excess. Using the analogy of oedema, which is the consequence of positive fluid balance or fluid retention, obesity can be seen as the consequence of positive energy balance or caloric retention. Just as the positive fluid balance of oedema can result from a host of underlying aetiologies including cardiac, hepatic, renal, endocrine, infectious, venous, lymphatic or drug‐related causes, obesity can result from a wide range of aetiologies that promote positive energy balance.
As with oedema, assessment and management of obesity requires an exploration of the root causes and underlying pathologies. To extend the obesity–oedema analogy, addressing all forms of obesity simply with caloric restriction and exercise (‘eat less and move more’) would be akin to addressing all forms of oedema simply with fluid restriction and diuretics. As this narrowly focused approach is not considered standard‐of‐care in managing patients with oedema, why should it be considered as the preferred method of treating obesity?
The classical treatment of obesity, based on increased physical activity and decreased calorie intake, has not been successful. Approximately two‐thirds of the people who lose weight will regain it within 1 year, and almost all of them within 5 years. In our opinion, the lack of efficiency in these therapeutic approaches is likely due to an incomplete understanding of the precise aetiology or aetiologies of obesity and, consequently a failure to address the root causes of energy imbalance.
In this paper, we present a theoretical diagnostic paradigm that provides an aetiological framework for the systematic assessment of obesity and discuss how this framework can enhance our ability to diagnose and manage obesity in clinical practice. The framework considers socio‐cultural, physiological, biomedical, psychological and iatrogenic factors that can determine energy input, metabolism and expenditure.
Comment: In hindsight, I would note that apart from failure to address the underlying pathology and drivers of weight gain, the “failure’ of conventional “eat-less – move-more” approaches to obesity management, relying largely on willpower, primarily fail because these efforts are counteracted by powerful neuroendocrine factors that both defend against continuing weight loss and promote weight regain. At the time we wrote this paper, we had perhaps not given the powerful nature of these effects full consideration. Nevertheless, I still believe that trying to understand exactly why a given person has gained excess weight is a good start to any obesity management endeavour.
More to follow…
If there is one article in the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity that we could have well done without, it is surely the one by Eve Guth promoting the age-old notion that simply counting calories is a viable and effective means to manage body weight.
As the author suggests:
“It is better for physicians to advise patients to assess and then modify their current eating habits and then reduce their caloric ingestion by counting calories. Counseling patients to do this involves provision of simple handouts detailing the calorie content of common foods, suggested meal plan options, an explanation of a nutrition label, and a list of websites with more detailed information. Patients should be advised that eating about 3500 calories a week in excess of the amount of calories expended results in gaining 1 lb (0.45 kg) of body weight. If a patient reduces caloric ingestion by 500 calories per day for 7 days, she or he would lose about 1 lb of body weight per week, depending on a number of other factors. This is a reasonable and realistic place to start because this approach is easily understood and does not ask a patient to radically change behavior.”
There is so much wrong with this approach, that it is hard to know exactly where to start.
For one, this advise is based on the simplistic assumption that obesity is simply a matter of managing calories to achieve and sustain long-term weight loss.
Not only, do we have ample evidence that these type of approaches rarely result in long-term sustained weight-loss but, more importantly this type of advice comfortably ignores the vast body of scientific literature that tells us that body weight is a tightly regulated physiological variable and that there are a host of complex neuroendocrine responses that will defend our bodies against long-term weight loss – mechanisms that most people (irrespective of whether they have obesity or not) will find it exceedingly hard to overcome with “will-power” alone.
No doubt, caloric “awareness” can be an eye-opener for many patients and there is good evidence that keeping a food journal can positively influence dietary patterns and even reduce “emotional” eating. But the idea that cognitively harnessing “will-power” to count calories (a very “unnatural” behaviour indeed), thereby creating and sustaining a long-term state of caloric deficit is rather optimistic at best.
In fact, legions of people who have been battling obesity all their lives can attest to the fact that encouragement to simply “eat less and move more” (ELMM) as a viable strategy to achieve and sustain significant weight loss is about as effective as reminding people with depression to focus on the brighter side of things and cheer up.
Not to mention the debunked 3500 calorie deficit a week = 1 lb weight loss (week after week after week till a so called “healthy” weight is achieved) myth, which is simply not how bodies work.
Continuing to propagate this antiquated and simplistic idea of what it takes to manage a complex chronic disease like obesity, is exactly what is holding the field back.
There is no reason to assume why more of the same should produce results that are any different from those in the past.
It is time we recognise that restricting caloric intake by willpower alone (irrespective of the dietary strategy) simply does not change the biology of the underlying physiology that effectively defends our bodies against long-term weight loss.
Reading an article like this in 2018 in a reputable journal that promises to “reimagine” obesity is both disappointing and a stark reminder of just how far we have to go to change widely held beliefs that obesity is simply a matter of calories in and calories out – if only life (and human biology) was that simple!
In addition to the series of article on long-term outcomes in bariatric surgery, the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity, also features several articles discussing the potential role of taxing or otherwise regulating the use of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) as a policy measure to address obesity.
In a first article, Jennifer Pomeranz and colleagues discuss whether or not governments can in fact require health warnings on advertisements for sugar-sweetend beverages. The discussion focuses on an injunction issued by the Ninth Circuit Court on the enforcement of San Francisco’s requirement that sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) advertisements display a health warning statement, finding that this law likely violated the First Amendment rights of advertisers of SSBs.
The background for this court decision was the fact that San Francisco passed a law requiring SSB advertisers to display: “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”
In its decision, the court felt that the proposed warning label was not scientifically accurate, as it focussed exclusively on “added sugar(s)” rather than sugars overall. It appears that there is no scientific evidence suggesting that “added sugars” are any more (or less) harmful than the “natural” sugar occurring in any other foods or beverages).
However, as the authors argue, warning on SSB may well be warranted as
“In addition to being a major source of added sugar in the US diet, the liquid form of SSBs could enable rapid consumption and digestion without the same satiety cues as solid foods. SSBs also contain no relevant ingredients to provide offsetting health benefits, in comparison with sweetened whole grain cereals, nut bars, yogurt, or other foods with added sugars, which can have healthful components. Furthermore, the associations of SSBs with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are each stronger and more consistent than for added sugars in solid foods. In addition, compared with other foods containing added sugars, SSBs are the only source for which randomized controlled trials have confirmed the observational link to weight gain.”
Another point of contention identified by the court was related to the fact that the warning stated harm irrespective of quantity and would have been more accurate had it included the term “overconsumption” or at leas the qualifier “may”.
Here, the authors argue that,
“health risks of SSBs increase monotonically. Thus, use of the word “overconsumption” would not be scientifically accurate because there is no clear threshold effect between SSB consumption and harm. Yet, due to potential individual variation in responses, incorporating the word “may” or “can” would be scientifically accurate and are used in alcohol and smokeless tobacco warnings.”
The third objection by the court was related to the proposed size and rectangular border requirements of the warning, which was considered to be “unduly burdensome” – a point that the authors concede could be dealt with by modify formatting requirements by slightly reducing size, permitting “hairline” borders, or using other methods to ensure prominence and conspicuousness.
.In a second article on the issue of SSBs, Lisa Powell and Matthew Maciejewski discuss the case for taxing SSBs, noting they are the largest contributor of added sugar in the US diet, accounting for approximately 6.5% of total daily calories among adults and 7.3% among youth (ages 2-19 years) and approached 8% to 9% of daily calories among minority populations and 9% to 10% among low-income households. In addition consumption of SSBs have been associated with obesity as well as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, dental caries, and osteoporosis.
As the authors point out, for SSB taxes to be effective, the increased cost of SSBs has to be passed on to the consumer (“pass-through) and the consumer has to respond by decreasing their consumption (“price elasticity”). In places where SSB taxes have been implemented (e.g. Mexico), both effects have been seen, suggesting that an SSB tax can indeed change consumer behaviours.
However, as the authors also note, so far there is little evidence directly demonstrating that such changes have translated into actual health outcomes (for obesity or otherwise).
Nevertheless, the authors feel that an SSB tax can effectively decrease the overall consumption of these beverages and should perhaps be extended even further to include all forms of sugary drinks including 100% fruit juice. For this approach to be broadly acceptable, it would also be important to dedicate any revenue from these taxes to specific educational or public health purposes.
Finally, a third article on this issue by John Cawley deals with an interesting “quasi experimental” pass-through effect of SSB taxes at the Philadelphia International Airport, which happens to straddle the city border, with some terminals in Philadelphia that are subject to the beverage tax (1.5 cents per ounce), and other terminals in Tinicum that are not.
The study included 31 stores: 21 on the taxed side of the airport (Philadelphia) and 10 on the untaxed side (Tinicum).
As the authors found, following the implementation of the SSB tax in Philadelphia, the average price of SSBs increased on both the taxed and untaxed side of the airport (albeit more so on the taxed side). Using only data for taxed stores, the percentage of the tax passed on to consumers was 93%. Overall, however, the price difference between the taxed and untaxed stores was about 0.83 cents per ounce (a 55% relative pass-through rate).
Thus, while the tax did have a significant effect on SSB pricing in Philadelphia, it appears that the non-taxed stores simply went along to increase their profit margins accordingly.
Whether or not these changes in pricing had any impact on actual SSB sales or consumption was not reported.
Together, these studies certainly support the statement by Powell and Maciejewski that
“SSB taxes are likely to remain controversial for some time and policy makers will have a number of issues to consider as they formulate and implement fiscal policies.”
“SSB taxation can only be one approach to what must be a multipronged public health strategy to reduce obesity via improved diets and increased activity. The fact that intake of SSBs has declined over the past decade and the obesity epidemic has continued unabated suggests that reducing SSBs alone is not the sole solution. Adults and youth who frequently consume SSBs are more likely to engage in other unhealthy behaviors (eg, inactivity, greater fast-food consumption), so population-based policies specifically targeting these behaviors need to be designed in concert with SSB taxes. Although SSB consumption remains high in the United States, particularly among vulnerable populations, and taxation is a viable tool for curbing its consumption, the long-run intended and unintended effects of SSB tax policy are yet to be determined. The debate on its merits as an effective tool to improve health outcomes will be greatly informed by rigorous evidence on consumption, sugar intake, and body weight both on average and within vulnerable populations (children, minorities, low-income individuals).”
The assessment of weight history is no doubt a key feature of obesity assessment. Not only can weight history and trajectories provide important insights into obesity related risk but, perhaps more importantly, provide key information on precipitating factors and drivers of excessive weight gain.
Now, in a short article published in MedEdPublish, Robert Kushner discusses how the well-known OPQRST mnemonic for assessing a “chief complaint” can be applied to assess body weight.
In short, OPQRST is a mnemonic for Onset, Precipitating, Quality of Life, Remedy, Setting, and Temporal pattern. Applied to obesity, Kushner provides the following sample questions for each item:
Onset: “When did you first begin to gain weight?” “What did you weight in high school, college, early 20s, 30s, 40s?” “What was your heaviest weight?”
Precipitating: “What life events led to your weight gain, e.g., college, long commute, marriage, divorce, financial loss?” “How much weight did you gain with pregnancy?” “How much weight did you gain when you stopped smoking?” “How much weight did you gain when you started insulin?”
Quality of life: “At what weight did you feel your best?” “What is hard to do at your current weight?”
Remedy: “What have you done or tried in the past to control your weight?” “What is the most successful approach you tried to lose weight?” “What do you attribute the weight loss to?” “What caused you to gain your weight back?”
Setting: “What was going on in your life when you last felt in control of your weight?” “What was going on when you gained your weight?” “What role has stress played in your weight gain?” “How important is social support or having a buddy to help you?”
Temporal pattern: “What is the pattern of your weight gain?” “Did you gradually gain your weight over time, or is it more cyclic (yo-yo)?” “Are there large swings in your weight, and if so, what is the weight change?”
As Kushner notes,
“These features provide a contextual understanding of how and when patients gained weight, what efforts were employed to take control, and the impact of body weight on their health. Furthermore, by using a narrative or autobiographical approach to obtaining the weight history, patients are able to express, in their own words, a life course perspective of the underlying burden, frustration, struggle, stigma or shame associated with trying to manage body weight. Listening should be unconditional and nonjudgmental. By letting patients tell their story, the clinician is also able to assess the patients’ awareness, knowledge, motivation, decision-making, and resiliency regarding weight management. The narrative provides a basis for approaching the patients’ weight holistically, as well as beginning to formulate diagnostic and therapeutic options.”
There is no doubt much to be gained in understanding obesity by allowing patients to tell their own weight stories.