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 arguments that support calling obesity a disease, is the simple fact that, once established, it behaves like a chronic disease.
Thus, once people have accumulated excess or abnormal adipose tissue that affects their health, there is no known way of reversing the process to the point that this condition would be considered “cured”.
By “cured”, I mean that there is a treatment for obesity, which can be stopped without the problem reappearing. For e.g. we can cure an ear infection – a short course of antibiotics and the infection will resolve to perhaps never reappear. We can also cure many forms of cancer, where surgery or a bout of chemotherapy removes the tumour forever. Those conditions we can “cure” – obesity we cannot!
For all practical purposes, obesity behaves exactly like every other chronic disease – yes, we can modify the course or even ameliorate the condition with the help of behavioural, medical or surgical treatments to the point that it may no longer pose a health threat, but it is at best in “remission” – when the treatment stops, the weight comes back – sometimes with a vengeance.
And yes, behavioural treatments are treatments, because the behaviours we are talking about that lead to ‘remission’ are far more intense than the behaviours that non-obese people have to adopt to not gain weight in the first place.
This is how I explained this to someone, who recently told me that about five years ago he had lost a substantial amount of weight (over 50 pounds) simply by watching what he eats and maintaining a regular exercise program. He argued that he had “conquered” his obesity and would now consider himself “cured”.
I explained to him, that I would at best consider him in “remission”, because his biology is still that of someone living with obesity.
And this is how I would prove my point.
Imagine he and I tried to put on 50 pounds in the next 6 weeks – I would face a real upward battle and may not be able to put on that weight at all – he, in contrast, would have absolutely no problem putting the weight back on.
In fact, if he were to simply live the way I do, eating the amount of food I do, those 50 lbs would be back before he knows it.
His body is just waiting to put the weight back on whereas my biology will actually make it difficult for me simply put that weight on.
This is because his “set-point”, even 5 years after losing the weight, is still 50 lbs higher than my “set-point”, which is around my current weight (the heaviest I have ever been).
Whereas, he is currently working hard against his set-point, by doing what he is doing (watching what he eats, following a strict exercise routine), I would be working against my set-point by having to force myself to eat substantially more than my body needs or wants.
That is the difference! By virtue of having had 50 lb heavier, his biology has been permanently altered in that it now defends a weight that is substantially higher than mine.
His post-weight loss biology is very different from mine, although we are currently at about the same weight.
This is what I mean by saying he is in “remission”, thanks to his ongoing behavioural therapy.
Today, we understand much of this biology. We understand what happens when people try to lose weight and how hard the body fights to resist weight loss and to put the weight back on.
This is why, for all practical purposes, obesity behaves just like every other chronic disease and requires ongoing treatment to control – no one is ever “cured” of their obesity.
Not even people who have bariatric surgery – reverse the surgery and before you know it, the weight is back.
So, if for all practical purposes, obesity behaves like a chronic disease, why not just call a spade a spade?
For an illustration on why obesity acts like a chronic disease watch this short TEDx talk
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”.
Continuing in my miniseries on arguments I often hear against calling obesity a disease, I will now deal with the issue of stigma and discrimination, namely that declaring obesity a disease stigmatizes people who may be healthy.
I have already dealt with the issue of not using the terms “obesity” to describe people of size, who are perfectly healthy.
Thus, using the actual WHO definition of obesity (the accumulation of excess or abnormal body fat that impairs health), this term should not used to describe people who do not experience health problems from their body fat.
That said, how exactly does obesity stigmatize people who actually have obesity (using the above definition and not simply BMI)?
No doubt, obesity is a highly stigmatised condition, but so are numerous other diseases including depression, addictions, HIV/AIDS and many others.
While much has been achieved in destigmatizing these conditions, obesity still lags far behind.
This problem cannot be addressed by refusing to call obesity a disease – it can only be addressed by getting people (including friends and family) to understand the complex and multi-factorial nature of this disorder and the rather limited treatment options that we currently have available for people living with this disease.
It is not calling obesity a disease that promotes weight bias and stigma, rather, it is the fairy tale of “choice” and the overly simplistic “eat-less move-more” propaganda that stigmatises people living with excess weight by promoting discriminatory stereotypes and the notion that they are simply not smart or motivated enough to change their slovenly ways.
In contrast, acknowledging that obesity is a disease with a complex psychosociobiology, if anything, can actually help move us towards destigmatising obesity in the same way that depression has been destigmatised by reframing the issue as a matter of “chemicals in the brain” (which incidentally would also apply to most of obesity).
Thus, not only should calling obesity a disease help reduce stigma but also hopefully go a long way in reducing wight-based discrimination in everything from access to care to disability legislation.
New Orleans, LA
Are you an impulsive eater? Do you have a hard time meal planning or keeping a food journal? Do you find it hard to remember if you had breakfast or not (never mind what you actually ate)? Do you start every new diet or exercise program with super enthusiasm, only to lose interest a few days later? Does your day lack a routine (for no good reason)?
These are just some of the ways in which Attention Deficit Hypertactivity or just Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD/ADD) can sabotage your efforts to control your weight.
Now, an article by Philip Asherson and colleagues from Kings College London, UK, published in The Lancet Psychiatry discuss important conceptual issues regarding the diagnosis and management of ADHD/ADD in adults.
Although ADHD/ADD is largely thought to be a problem in kids and youth, it remains a considerable and often undiagnosed issue in adults.
Thus, as the authors point out,
“…treatment of adult ADHD in Europe and many other regions of the world is not yet common practice, and diagnostic services are often unavailable or restricted to a few specialist centres.”
This is all the more surprising (and disappointing) given that adult patients respond similarly to current drug and psychosocial interventions, with the same benefits seen in children and adolescents.
With regard to diagnosis it is important to note that,
“Symptoms of ADHD cluster together into two key dimensions of inattention and hyperactivity-impulsivity, are reliably measured, and are strong predictors of functional impairments, but they reflect continuous traits rather than a categorical disorder.”
“Of particular relevance to adult ADHD is the relative persistence of inattention and improvements in hyperactive-impulsive symptoms during development, so that many patients who had the combined type presentation of ADHD as children present with predominantly inattentive symptoms as adults.”
“In clinical practice, the continuous nature of ADHD should not present diagnostic difficulties in moderate-to-severe cases, but might cause difficulties in mild cases with more subtle forms of impairment. Careful attention is needed to assess the effect of ADHD symptoms on impairment and quality of life, including an understanding of the broader range of problems linked to ADHD (eg, executive function [self-regulation] impairments, sleep problems, irritability, and internal restlessness), in addition to functional impairments such as traffic accidents and occupational underachievement. Therefore, some individuals, who seem to function well, might nevertheless suffer from a substantial mental health problem related to ADHD.”
Key criteria according to DSM-5 include:
- Mind seems elsewhere, even in the absence of any obvious distraction
- Starts tasks, but quickly loses focus and is easily side-tracked
- Fails to finish tasks in the workplace
- Reporting unrelated thoughts
- Problems returning calls, paying bills, keeping appointments
- Difficulty in managing sequential tasks; difficulty in keeping materials and belongings in order; messy, disorganised work
- Poor time management
- Tends to fail to meet deadlines
- Feeling restless
- Unable or uncomfortable being still for an extended time, such as in restaurants or meetings
- Might be perceived by others as being restless and difficult to keep up with
- Butts into conversations or activities, might start using other people’s belongings without permission, might intrude into or take over what others are doing
Other common features, that do not quite rise to level of diagnostic criteria include include poor concentration, distractibility, restlessness, over-talkativeness, sleep problems, irritability, impulsiveness, and low self-esteem.
It is important to note that other mental or physical disorders can mimic some of the symptoms of ADHD. These include anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, hyperthyroidism and sleep apnea.
While the paper does not mention obesity or difficulties managing weight as a possible “complication” of ADHD, in my experience, identifying and treating ADHD in bariatric patients can often make all the difference.
Thus, I concur with the authors’ conclusions that,
“…ADHD should be recognised in the same way as other common adult mental health disorders, and that failure to recognise and treat ADHD is detrimental to the wellbeing of many patients seeking help for common mental health problems.”