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.
Just imagine if the question in the title of this post was, “Why would anyone want access to prescription medications for diabetes?” (or heart disease? or lung disease? or arthritis? or, for that matter, cancer?)
Why would anyone even ask that question?
If there is one thing we know for sure about obesity, it is that it behaves just like every other chronic disease.
Once you have it (no matter how or why you got it) – it pretty much becomes a life-long problem. Our bodies are so efficient in defending our body fat, that no matter what diet or exercise program you go on, ultimately, the body wins out and puts the weight back on.
In those few instances where people claim to have “conquered” obesity, you can virtually bet on it, that they are still dealing with keeping the lost weight off every single day of their life – they are not cured, they are just treated! Their risk of putting the weight back on (recidivism) is virtually 100% – it’s usually just a matter of time.
Funnily enough, this is no different from people trying to control any other chronic disease with diet and exercise alone.
Take for e.g. diabetes. It is not that diet and exercise don’t work for diabetes, but the idea that most people can somehow control their diabetes with diet and exercise alone is simply not true. No matter what diet they go on or what exercise program they follow, sooner or later, their blood sugar levels go back up and the problems come back.
You could pretty much say the same for high blood pressure or cholesterol, or pretty much any other chronic health problem (that, in fact, is the very definition of “chronic”).
So why medications for obesity?
Because, like every other chronic disease, medications can help patients achieve long-term treatment goals (of course only as long as they stay on treatment).
Simply put, if the reason people virtually always regain their lost weight (no matter how hard they try to lose it) is simply because of their body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, then medications that interfere with the body’s ability to resist weight loss and promote weight regain, will surely make it far more likely for them to not only lose the weight but also keep it off.
Now that we increasingly understand many of the body’s mechanisms to defend against weight loss and promote weight regain (and the body has a whole bag of tricks that you are up against), then pharmacologically blocking these mechanisms makes this a manageable (fair?) fight.
This is by no means easy. Interfering with human physiology always comes at a cost – which is why we need medications that are robustly tested for safety and efficacy (which is why we are here talking about prescription medications and not the nonsense you can buy over the counter in your local drug store or health supplement outlet).
There is of course no guarantee that any one medication will work for or be tolerated by everyone – again, no different from the medications for other chronic diseases (which is why we have so many of them for the same indication).
So who has access to prescription anti-obesity medications in Canada?
Short answer – almost no one.
Thus, in the 2017 Report Card on Access To Obesity Treatment For Adults, released last week at the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, the less than 20% of Canadians living with obesity (and that is a very generous estimate) have access to the two prescriptions medications approved by Health Canada for long-term treatment of obesity.
Thus, as far a coverage for obesity medications in Canada is concerned,
Neither anti-obesity medication (Xenical® or saxenda®) are listed as a benefit on any provincial/territorial formulary and, therefore, they are not covered under any provincial public drug benefit (or pharmacare) programs.
There may be special-access programs in some provinces that adjudicate coverage for non-formulary medications based on individual case review; however, coverage for anti-obesity medications through these programs are not guaranteed and are, in fact, rare.
Anti-obesity medications are not covered in any federal public drug benefit programs.
Again one must ask, what will it take for governments, employers, and payers to stop discriminating against Canadians living with obesity in our healthcare system?
Disclaimer: I have received honoraria for speaking and consulting for companies that make anti-obesity medications
The biguanide metformin is widely used for the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Metformin has also been shown to slow the progression from pre to full-blown type 2 diabetes. Moreover, metformin can reduce weight gain associated with psychotropic medications and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Now, a randomised controlled trial by M P van der Aa and colleagues from the Netherlands, published in Nutrition & Diabetes suggests that long-term treatment with metformin may stabilize body weight and improve body composition in adolescents with obesity and insulin resistance.
The randomised placebo-controlled double-blinded trial included 62 adolescents with obesity aged 10–16 years old with insulin resistance, who received 2000 mg of metformin or placebo daily and physical training twice weekly over 18 months.
Of the 42 participants (mean age 13, mean BMI 30), BMI was stabilised in the metformin group (+0.2 BMI unit), whereas the control group continued to gain weight (+1.2 BMI units).
While there was no significant difference in HOMA-IR, mean fat percentage reduced by 3% compared to no change in the control group.
Thus, the researcher conclude that long-term treatment with metformin in adolescents with obesity and insulin resistance can result in stabilization of BMI and improved body composition compared with placebo.
Given the rather limited effective options for addressing childhood obesity, this rather safe, simple, and inexpensive treatment may at least provide some relief for adolescents struggling with excess weight gain.
We live in a time where most of us complain about the lack of it. Thus, I often remind myself that our “fast-food culture” is more a time than a food problem.
Now a study by Viral Patel and colleagues, published in OBESITY, takes a detailed look at how US Americans spend their time according to different BMI categories.
The researchers analyse data from over 28,503 observations of individuals aged 22 to 70 from the American Time Use Survey, a continuous cross-sectional survey on time use in the USA.
In a statistical model that adjusted for various sociodemographic, geographic, and temporal characteristics, younger age; female sex; Asian race; higher levels of education; family income >$75 k; self-employment; and residence in the West or Northeast census regions were all associated with a lower BMI relative to reference categories whereas age 50 to 59 years; Black, Hispanic, or “other” race; and not being in the labor force were associated with a higher BMI.
That said, here are the differences in time use associated with higher BMI:
Although there were no substantial differences among BMI categories in time spent sleeping, overweight individuals experienced almost 20 fewer minutes of sleeplessness on weekends/holidays than individuals with normal weight. Furthermore, there was a U-shaped relationship between BMI and sleep duration such that BMI was lowest when sleep duration was approximately 8 h per day and increased as sleep duration became both shorter and longer. Less sleep on weekends and holidays (5 to 7 h) was also associated with higher BMI than 8 to 9 h or sleep.
There were also no major differences between BMI categories and the odds of participating in work or in the amount of time working. However, working 3-4 h on weekends/holidays was associated with the lowest BMI. Individuals with obesity were more likely to be working between 3:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. on weekdays than normal-BMI individuals, again perhaps cutting into restful sleep.
Individuals with obesity were less likely to participate in food and drink preparation than individuals with normal weight on weekdays but spent about the same amount of time eating or drinking as the reference category.
Interestingly, individuals with obesity were more likely than individuals with normal weight to participate in health-related self-care, and overweight individuals spent over 1 h more on weekdays than individuals with normal weight on health-related self-care and also spent an additional 15 min (almost double the time) on professional and personal care services.
While individuals with higher BMI were less likely to participate in sports, exercise, and recreation on weekdays and weekends/holidays compared with individuals with normal weight, those who did participate did not differ from individuals with normal weight in the amount of time spent participating. In contrast, overweight individuals were more likely to attend sports/recreation events during the week and spent an additional 47 min (almost 25% more) on this activity than individuals with normal weight.
Overall, there was a positive and generally linear association between time spent viewing television/movies and BMI, with individuals with obesity more likely to watch television almost all hours of the day during the week and weekends.
On weekends/holidays, individuals with obesity were more likely to participate in care for household children and household adults. It was also observed that individuals with obesity spent an additional 15 min on religious and spiritual activities on weekends/holidays, compared with normal-BMI individuals (who spent 116 min).
While these data are of interest and are largely consistent with the emerging data on the role of optimal sleep duration and the detrimental impact of sedentary activities like television viewing on body weight, we must remember that the data are cross-sectional in nature and cannot be interpreted to imply causality (as, unfortunately, the authors do throughout their discussion).
Also, no correction is made for increasing medical, mental, or functional limitations associated with increasing BMI levels, which may well substantially affect time use including sleep, work, participation in sports or work-related activities.
Thus, it is not exactly clear what lessons one can learn regarding possible interventions – it is one thing to describe behaviours – it is an entirely different thing to try and understand why those behaviours occur in the first place.
Thus, unfortunately, findings from these type of studies too often feed into the simplistic and stereotypical “obesity is a choice” narrative, which does little more than promote weight bias and discrimination.
There is no doubt that exercise is good for you and that individuals with obesity, both before and after bariatric surgery (like everyone else), would stand to benefit from increasing their levels of physical activity.
Following bariatric surgery, exercise may be particularly important not just to increase physical fitness, but also to limit the obligatory loss in muscle mass that generally accompanies weight loss.
Now, a study by David Creel and colleagues, published in OBESITY, compares three levels of exercise intervention in patients following bariatric surgery in terms of effectiveness and adherence.
A total of 150 patients undergoing bariatric surgery were randomised to either standard care (SC), pedometer use (P), or exercise counseling group (C).
The standard care group (SC) received no exercise support by the bariatric center beyond a simple educational pamphlet.
Participants in the pedometer group (P) were given a pedometer and a one-page information sheet on using the device to increase physical activity. This handout promoted the progressive attainment of 10,000 steps/day. Individuals were asked to wear their device daily and record date, steps achieved, and whether they wore the device the entire day, part of the day, or not at all. Journals were collected, but no feedback was provided.
Participants in the exercise counselling group (C) were regularly seen at the bariatric centre and counselled by a certified exercise professional using motivational intervention techniques with individual goal setting.
Based on physical activity measurements using an accelerometer over two weeks before and 2, 4, and 6 months postoperatively, there was no difference between the SC and P groups, with a statistically significant but modest increase in daily steps in the C group that emerged at 4 months and was maintained at 6 months (about 1,000 extra steps per day compared to SC).
There was no notable difference in exercise tolerance, which increased in all three groups post surgery.
No group reached the 10,000 steps/day or 150 bout-minutes/week recommended for general health
As may be expected from these rather modest results, no significant differences in weight or weight change were found between groups at any time point.
Thus, these findings suggest that handing out a pedometer and asking patients to journal their activity is no more effective in promoting physical activity, than simply handing out a pamphlet; moreover, even adding in counselling by an exercise professional adds little (if anything) to the outcome.
Although the researchers discuss the possibility that an even more intense intervention may provide more benefit, the modest findings certainly question the effectiveness of activity interventions post surgery.
Certainly, simply handing out pedometers does nothing, and adding in expensive group meetings or meetings with exercise professionals adds little more.
These finding by no means speak against the value of exercise after bariatric surgery – they just speak against the indiscriminate use of expensive healthcare resources, when they achieve little more than can be achieved by handing out a pamphlet.