Childhood obesity is a grave concern and so far community based interventions to prevent it have been rare and far between, with little evidence that any changes (however meagre) are in fact sustainable over time and will actually lead to a reduction in adult obesity.
Thus, the Australian team of Steven Allander and colleagues must be commended on embarking on what I believe will be the first cluster randomized trial in ten communities in the Great South Coast Region of Victoria, Australia to test whether it is possible to: (1) strengthen community action for childhood obesity prevention, and (2) measure the impact of increased action on risk factors for childhood obesity.
According to the trial design published in the International Journal of Environmental Research in Public Health, the WHO STOPS intervention will involve a facilitated community engagement process that: creates an agreed systems map of childhood obesity causes for a community; identifies intervention opportunities through leveraging the dynamic aspects of the system; and, converts these understandings into community-built, systems-oriented action plans.
Ten communities will be randomized (1:1) to intervention or control in year one and all communities will be included by year three.
The primary outcome is childhood obesity prevalence among grade two (ages 7–8 y), grade four (9–10 y) and grade six (11–12 y) students measured using established community-led monitoring system (69% school and 93% student participation rate in government and independent schools).
An additional group of 13 external communities from other regions of Victoria with no specific interventions will provide an external comparison.
All of this makes sense and is highly commendable.
What is shockingly lacking however – at least I see no mention of this in the published study design – is the inclusion of an explicit focus on what such community interventions aimed at reducing childhood obesity, will do to self-esteem and body image of the kids involved and weight bias in the communities overall.
Indeed, I see no mention of anyone with an explicit expertise in weight bias or kids mental health on the panel of researchers involved in this study.
This is concerning, as we now understand well that body image concerns and both implicit and explicit weight bias begin in kindergarten-age kids and must acknowledge that the “moral panic” created around childhood obesity has been accused of further promoting eating disorders, body image issues and weight bias.
Thus, we have here the unique opportunity to study the potential harm that could be done by school “surveillance” programs that assess body weight in kids or by the well-meant education on “healthy activity and healthy eating” that may teach kids that obesity is simply a result of making poor choices and not moving enough (rather than a complex biopsychosocial chronic disease, that is highly resistant to lasting effects of time-limited interventions).
I would sincerely appeal to the researchers involved to amend their study protocol to include changes in weight bias, unhealthy weight obsessions, body image issues, and eating disorders both at the level of the kids and the community overall, to ensure that the well-meant interventions do not inadvertently replace one problem with another – as always, the Devil of public health interventions lies in the unintended consequences.
In fact, if I was on the ethics committee tasked with approving this study, I would insist that an in-depth assessment plan for the potential harm of this intervention be in place before commencement of any study related activities in the relevant communities.
If the overall goal of the WHO STOPS intervention is to have a healthier generation of kids, nothing is more important than fully understanding the potential impact of this intervention on mental health and social attitudes towards kids and adults living with obesity.
Every two years the Canadian Obesity Network holds its National Obesity Summit – the only national obesity meeting in Canada covering all aspects of obesity – from basic and population science to prevention and health promotion to clinical management and health policy.
Anyone who has been to one of the past four Summits has experienced the cross-disciplinary networking and breaking down of silos (the Network takes networking very seriously).
Of all the scientific meetings I go to around the world, none has quite the informal and personal feel of the Canadian Obesity Summit – despite all differences in interests and backgrounds, everyone who attends is part of the same community – working on different pieces of the puzzle that only makes sense when it all fits together in the end.
The 5th Canadian Obesity Summit will be held at the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, located in the heart of the Canadian Rockies (which in itself should make it worth attending the summit), April 25-29, 2017.
Yesterday, the call went out for abstracts and workshops – the latter an opportunity for a wide range of special interest groups to meet and discuss their findings (the last Summit featured over 20 separate workshops – perhaps a tad too many, which is why the program committee will be far more selective this time around).
So here is what the program committee is looking for:
- Basic science – cellular, molecular, physiological or neuronal related aspects of obesity
- Epidemiology – epidemiological techniques/methods to address obesity related questions in populations studies
- Prevention of obesity and health promotion interventions – research targeting different populations, settings, and intervention levels (e.g. community-based, school, workplace, health systems, and policy)
- Weight bias and weight-based discrimination – including prevalence studies as well as interventions to reduce weight bias and weight-based discrimination; both qualitative and quantitative studies
- Pregnancy and maternal health – studies across clinical, health services and population health themes
- Childhood and adolescent obesity – research conducted with children and or adolescents and reports on the correlates, causes and consequences of pediatric obesity as well as interventions for treatment and prevention.
- Obesity in adults and older adults – prevalence studies and interventions to address obesity in these populations
- Health services and policy research – reaserch addressing issues related to obesity management services which idenitfy the most effective ways to organize, manage, finance, and deliver high quality are, reduce medical errors or improve patient safety
- Bariatric surgery – issues that are relevant to metabolic or weight loss surgery
- Clinical management – clinical management of overweight and obesity across the life span (infants through to older adults) including interventions for prevention and treatment of obesity and weight-related comorbidities
- Rehabilitation – investigations that explore opportunities for engagement in meaningful and health-building occupations for people with obesity
- Diversity – studies that are relevant to diverse or underrepresented populations
- eHealth/mHealth – research that incorporates social media, internet and/or mobile devices in prevention and treatment
- Cancer – research relevant to obesity and cancer
…..and of course anything else related to obesity.
Deadline for submission is October 24, 2016
To submit an abstract or workshop – click here
For more information on the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit – click here
For sponsorship opportunities – click here
Looking forward to seeing you in Banff next year!
A few weeks ago, I was invited by the Editor of The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology to review Obesity in Canada, a collection of articles by Canadian and Australian authors, who identify themselves as “fat scholars” engaging in “critical fat studies”. (Edited by Jenny Ellison, Deborah McPhail, and Wendy Mitchinson).
Obviously, I have had multiple interactions with “fat scholars” over the years and have certainly always learnt a lot.
Indeed, I would be the first to admit that many of my own ideas about obesity, including the issue of whether or not obesity is a disease and, if so, how to define the clinical problem of obesity in a manner that does not automatically label a quarter of the population as “diseased”, has been shaped by this discourse.
Similarly, my own notions about obesity management, with a primary goal to improve health and well-being rather than simply moving numbers on the scale, are clearly influenced by ideas that first emerged from the “fat acceptance camp” (not exactly the same, but close enough).
Thus, there was certainly much in this compendium that I was already quite familiar with – which certainly made the reading of this 500 page volume most enjoyable.
Nevertheless, it is important to realise that “fat scholars” do not just see themselves as “scientists” – rather, they see the practice of “fat studies” as a political work, tightly (some might say dogmatically) bound to a frame of reference that is reminiscent of political “activism” rather than “science”.
Fat scholars (at least the ones represented in this volume) are not just critical of, but also appear most happy to discard the entire biomedical and population health discourse around obesity, as nothing more than (I paraphrase), “a thinly-veiled conspiracy by the biomedical establishment to create a moral panic that justifies the reassertion of normative identities pertaining to gender, race, class, and sexuality.”
Accordingly, some fat scholars appear to be of the rather strong opinion that there is in fact no “global obesity epidemic” and even if there are perhaps a few more fat people around today than ever before, the health consequences of obesity are vastly overblown, and any recommendations or attempts to lose weight are not only ineffective but actually harmful.
Now, before you simply roll your eyes and decide to file away the whole exercise in the drawer that you reserve for global-warming deniers and anti-vaxxers, let me assure you that there is indeed a lot to be learnt from the discourse (at least I did).
For one, there are absolutely fascinating chapters on the history of fat activism in Canada (which apparently dates back to the early 70s), enlightening perspectives on Indigenous People’s encounters with obesity, the issue of “mother blaming”, and even a chapter on fat authenticity and the pursuit of hetero-romantic love in Vancouver.
There are stories about how kids and families experience childhood obesity intervention programs and how primary school teachers themselves struggle with being thrust into a role of being role models while struggling with their own personal response to the pervasive obesity messages.
Obviously, there are some ideas that may be harder to swallow than others.
Take for e.g, the notion that the “root cause” of fat phobia (at least according to fat scholars who rely on postmodern feminism, psychoanalysis, and queer theories), is simply a reflection of the femininity ascribed to body fat: because women need fat to menstruate, body fat can be seen as female reproductive material that, in patriarchy, must be contained, restrained, and ultimately eliminated.
Personally, I can no doubt think of a wide range of other “root causes” that would result in “fat phobia” and “weight stigma” without having to quite delve into feminism or queer theories – but that’s another story.
Or the notion that there is in fact no link between body fat and diabetes – something that is easily refuted by a host of experimental animal studies and clinical observations (which, in the world of “fat scholars” do not appear to exist or are for some opaque reason deemed entirely irrelevant for the discourse).
Nevertheless, these “peculiarities” aside, I do admit that I found the book a very timely, relevant and enlightening read for anyone who is seriously interested in the issue of obesity and bold enough to step out beyond the typical biomedical discourse.
I would most certainly recommend this volume to people working in health policy and public health but also to clinicians, who seek to better understand some of the social aspects of the obesity discourse as it relates to their patients.
There is much in the volume that I perhaps disagree with or rather, see from a different perspective (I am after all a clinician) – however, openness to entertaining alternative views and ideas, and willingness to shift your own opinion and beliefs when new evidence emerges, is the defining characteristic of good scholarship – and I certainly remain a lifelong student.
Disclaimer: I was given a complimentary copy of Obesity in Canada to review by the Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology
Modelled on “Humans of New York”, WoL presents images and stories of Canadians living with obesity in all their diversity and variation.
After all, nothing is more effective in breaking down stereotypes and barriers than realizing that people living with obesity are no different from everyone else, in their hopes, their dreams, their challenges, their aspirations – doing their best to cope and overcome what life throws at them.
Rather than promoting a culture of fat-shaming and blaming, the Canadian Obesity Network seeks to destigmatise those living with obesity by encouraging them to share their real stories in their own words.
Thus, this project seeks to dismantle the stereotypes that surround the lives of people who live with obesity, including the notion that everyone who has overweight or obesity wants to lose weight because they are unhappy with themselves.
Many of the stories you will see in the upcoming weeks do not reflect this. The Canadian Obesity Network hopes that, by sharing these experiences, we all will realize that people who have overweight or obese have goals, dreams, and aspirations just like everyone else, and that their weight is not necessarily a barrier to achieving these, nor is it something that needs to be a source of fear and shame.
In contrast to many other “weight-loss” sites, the Canadian Obesity Network will not publish stories that glorify weight loss journeys, commercial programs or products, or extreme weight loss attempts.
“While we respect the importance and validity of each story we receive, publishing stories like these only serve to reinforce the idea that people who are overweight or obese are living unhappy, unfulfilling lives – and we know you are worth so much more than that.”
For more information on how to participate in this project click here or send an e-mail to email@example.com.
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 and need 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” – once you consider the biology, nothing about obesity is “simple”.