There is no doubt that bariatric surgery is currently the most effective long-term treatment for severe obesity, however, there is also some evidence to suggest that patients seeking bariatric surgery (or for that matter any kind of weight loss) are more likely to have accompanying mental issues that individuals with obesity who don’t and that such issues may affect the outcomes of surgery.
Now, a paper by Aaron Dawes and colleagues from Los Angeles, CA, published in JAMA presents a meta-analysis of mental health conditions among patients seeking and undergoing bariatric surgery.
They identified 68 publications meeting inclusion criteria: 59 reporting the prevalence of preoperative mental health conditions (65,363 patients) and 27 reporting associations between preoperative mental health conditions and postoperative outcomes (50,182 patients).
Among patients seeking and undergoing bariatric surgery, the most common mental health conditions, each affecting about one-in-five patients were depression and binge eating disorder.
However, neither condition was consistently associated with differences in post-surgical weight outcomes. Nor was there a consistent relationship between other mental health conditions including PTSD or bipolar disease and post-surgical outcomes.
Interestingly, bariatric surgery was consistently associated with a significant decrease in the prevalence and/or severity of depressive symptoms.
So what do these findings mean for clinical practice?
As the authors note,
“Guidelines from the American Society for Metabolic and Bariatric Surgery and the Department of Veterans Affairs/Department of Defense recommend routine preoperative health assessments, including a review of patients’ mental health conditions. Other groups advocate for a more comprehensive, preoperative mental health examination in addition to the general evaluation currently performed by medical and surgical teams. The results of our study do not defend or rebut such a recommendation.”
So why are these data not clearer than they should be? Here is what the authors have to offer:
“Much of the difficulty in determining the effectiveness of preoperative mental health screening is due to the limitations of current screening strategies, which use a variety of scales and focus on mental health diagnoses rather than psychosocial factors. Previous reviews have suggested that self-esteem, mental image, cognitive function, temperament, support networks, and socioeconomic stability play major roles in determining outcomes after bariatric surgery. Future studies would benefit from including these characteristics as well as having clear eligibility criteria, standardized instruments, regular measurement intervals, and transparency with respect to time-specific follow-up rates. By addressing these methodological issues, future work can help to identify the optimal strategy for evaluating patients’ mental health prior to bariatric surgery.”
At this time, perhaps to err on the side of caution, our centre (like many others) continues to screen for and address any relevant mental health issues in patients wishing to undergo bariatric surgery.
Although bariatric surgery is by far the most effective treatment for severe obesity, most health professionals will have learnt little about it during their training. For those who did, much of what they learnt is probably obsolete, given the remarkable advances both in surgical technique as well as patient management.
Given that the family doctor may often be the key person to suggest or counsel patients about the pros and cons of bariatric surgery, refer appropriate patients for surgery and manage them long-term in the years following surgery, it is essential that they have a sound understanding of the indications, risk and benefits of surgery.
Now, a survey of Ontario family docs, published in Obesity Surgery by Mark Auspitz and colleagues from the University of Toronto, reveals important knowledge gaps and misconceptions about bariatric surgery.
The 28-item questionnaire, sent to 1328 physicians in Ontario resulted in 165 responses.
Overall experience was limited: around 70% of responding family physicians had less than five surgical patients in their practice, almost 10% had none.
The vast majority of responders (70 %) stated that they at best referred about 5 % of their patients with severe obesity for surgery.
Not surprisingly, compared to physicians who had previously referred patients for surgery, physicians who had never referred a patient for surgery were less likely to discuss bariatric surgery with their patients (30 vs. 79 %), less likely to feel comfortable explaining procedure options (6 vs. 34 %) or providing postoperative care (27 vs. 64 %).
Virtually all (92%) of family physicians stated that they would like to receive more education about bariatric surgery.
To the question as to whether or not they would consider referring a family member for surgery, only 56% of docs who had never referred a patient would consider it, compared to 85% of physicians with previous referrals.
As a side note, only 30% of responders felt that they had the appropriate equipment and resources to manage patients with obesity.
Unless one assumes that the docs who responded to this survey are somehow very different from the docs who didn’t, one must conclude that there are indeed considerable knowledge gaps about bariatric surgery among family docs in Ontario (and I have no reason to believe that this situation would be much better anywhere else in Canada).
On a positive note, it appears that the vast majority of docs are keenly aware of this deficit and would appreciate more education on bariatric surgery.
How much does your doctor know about it?
Yesterday’s guest post on the issue of food addiction (as expected) garnered a lively response from readers who come down on either side of the discussion – those, who vehemently oppose the idea and those, who report success.
Fact is, that we can discuss the pros and cons of this till the cows come home, because the simple truth is that the whole notion lacks what my evidence-based colleagues would consider “strong evidence”.
Indeed, I did try to find at least one high-quality randomized controlled study on using an addictions approach to obesity vs. “usual” care (or for that matter anything else) and must admit that I came up short. The best evidence I could find comes from a few case series – no controls, one observer, nothing that would compel anyone to believe that this approach has more than anecdotal merit.
Yet, the biology (and perhaps even the psychology) of the idea is appealing. Self-proclaimed “food addicts” that I have spoken to readily identify with the addiction model and describe their relationship to “trigger foods” as an uncontrollable factor in their lives that calls for complete abstinence. Animal studies confirm that foods do indeed stimulate the same parts of the brain that are sensitive to other hedonic pleasures and substances.
So why the lack of good data? After all, the idea is hardly new – intervention programs for “food addicts” using the 12 steps or other approaches have been around for decades.
Can it be simply the lack of academic interest in this issue? I find that hard to imagine – but nothing would surprise me.
Is it perhaps because addiction researchers do not take obesity seriously and obesity researchers don’t like the addiction model?
I certainly don’t buy the argument that there is no commercial interest in such an approach – if there were strong and irrefutable evidence, I’m sure someone would figure out how to monetize it.
So again, I wonder, why the lack of good data?
Honestly, I don’t know.
I’m open to any views on this (especially if substantiated by actual evidence).
Today’s guest post is a response to my recent post about Oprah and her weight-loss struggles. The post comes from Dr Vera Tarman, MD, FCFP, ABAM, and author of Food Junkies: The Truth About Food Addiction and Mike MacKinnon a fitness trainer (Fit in 20).
Oprah’s experience of losing and regaining her weight on a regular basis, alongside Sarah, the Duchess of York and Kristie Allie – all spokespersons for weight loss programs ‐ certainly send us a dismal message. Sure, weight loss can occur but keeping it off is the challenge that trips up 90% of people who have tried these and other programs. So, isn’t it more compassionate to dissuade people from the inevitable yo‐ yo lifestyle and accept their current obese weight?
But … what if there are actually many success stores that we are not hearing about?
As an addictions physician I witnessed patients who have lost an average of 60 to 100 pounds and have kept that weight off for years. They are food addicts in recovery from their addiction. They have adopted a radical diversion from the traditional bariatric or eating disorder menu recommendations: Rather than ‘learning’ how to eat all foods in moderation, these people have identified and abstained from the trigger foods that spur their addictive eating. Sobriety, food serenity and long term weight loss result – on a consistent basis.
Look to the recovery circles and addiction treatment programs. Here you will unearth people who have succeeded where Oprah has not. We don’t hear about these victories because many have pledged anonymity in the church basements where they meet, strategize and buffer the messages that we are saturated with by our food‐obsessed culture. Because there is no money to be made with the simple abstinence of sugar, flour or processed foods, and no drugs, herbs or patented food packages to sell – no one is advertising or promoting this approach. Abstinence.
Here is the story of one clinician who has found long ‐ term weight loss. His is a case in point: Weight loss for 13 years and counting. He is not a “rare’” individual who has achieved the impossible. He and his clients have simply applied the solution to the underlying problem of their obesity – an undiagnosed food addiction.
I’m a strength and nutrition coach who specializes in helping people lose weight. My typical clients are female, age 35 and up, who have tried EVERYTHING under the sun, to no avail. Most have had some success, but usually they have lost their weight and gained back even more.
Often, by the time they get to me, they’re frustrated, angry and feel hopelessness.
Over the course of two years, I lost 95 lbs of body fat. I have maintained my weight loss for almost 13 years. I have also helped many others maintain similar weight loss. Last week I interviewed an ex‐client of mine ‐ a doctor ‐ who lost almost 50 lbs six years ago. How did we both do it?
How did we maintain our loss in the face of those who would tell us that it’s not possible, that most can’t?
We addressed the problem, not the symptom. The symptom is excess body fat. The problem however is multi‐factorial:
1) It is mental in that overweight people greatly misunderstand what healthy eating and healthy exercising looks like.
2) It is emotional. Overweight people tend to turn to food instead of healthier coping mechanisms when they experience stress or overwhelming emotions.
3) It is physical: they eat too much of the wrong stuff, and end up eating it compulsively.
I work with people to re‐program their thinking, so they learn to have a better relationship with food. I teach them reality‐based therapies (CBT, DBT, ACT, REBT) that help them deal with harmful thinking and negative emotions more constructively.
Mainly, I teach them what to eat, what foods are healthy versus which lead to addictive eating. Clients learn the tools they need to stay on track so that they don’t relapse back to compulsive eating. The truth is, for some, there are foods they must avoid permanently. This approach is not popular. But, I have found that some people treat certain foods the same way a drug addict treats their drug of choice. Once they start, they cannot stop.
Not everyone fits this category, but some do. When these people agree to give up the foods that are causing them trouble, they succeed.
So, when I hear someone say that most who are overweight are doomed to never lose their weight, my first thought is “nonsense”. What I suggest to my clients is a paradigm shift in thinking. We, who are led by the diet industry, misunderstand the nature of the problem. It is not a simple matter of eating less and excising more. People must accept that an equal portion of mental, emotional and physical work needs to be done AND they may also have to accept that there are certain foods they can never eat again.
Are you a food addict?
If you are, you may have to identify and abstain from your favorite foods in order to achieve long‐term weight loss. Those processed savory or sugary ‘drugs’ that comprise our daily snacks and fast food meals.
Is there good news? There are plenty of people out there who have sustained weight loss, but we have yet to capture them in our studies. They will tell you: You can, you can, you can.
Any follower of media reports or even research papers on the relationship between obesity and mortality should be righty confused by now.
Not only are there publications suggesting that the relationship between obesity and mortality isn’t that strong after all and that perhaps the BMI levels associated with the longest survival are somewhere around 30 (and not below 25) but then there is the issue of the obesity paradox, or the finding that among people with chronic (and some acute illnesses), a higher BMI is associated with better survival than being of “normal” weight.
On the other hand, there is overwhelming evidence that higher BMI’s are associated with an increased risk of a wide range of health problems – from diabetes to cancer.
This is not to say that everyone with a higher BMI is sick – they are not! But there is no doubt that the risk of illness does increase with higher BMIs.
In our own study on the Edmonton Obesity Staging System (EOSS), which classifies individuals based on their actual health rather on their BMI, we found that while about 50% of individual in the BMI 25-30 range can be considered healthy (EOSS Stage 0 or 1), this number drops to below 15% for individuals in the BMI 40+ range.
So, if obesity is such a risk factor for disease, why do epidemiological studies struggle to consistently show an effect of obesity on mortality?
Now, a paper by Andrew Stokes and Samuel Preston, published in the Proceedings of the US National Academy of Science, suggests that it is not current weight (as used in many studies) but rather the highest lifetime weight that is most clearly associated with mortality.
Their reasoning is as follows. “Intentional” weight loss in the population is rare (very few people in the general population ever consciously manage to lose a significant amount of weight and keep it off)
In contrast, “unintentional” weight loss, when it occurs is generally a bad sign. Indeed, one of the best indicators of poor prognosis (for almost any health condition) is when someone loses weight. In many cases, this “spontaneous” weight loss can precede overt illness or death by many years.
Thus, the authors argue that most of the literature on this issue is simply confounded by the confusion caused by all the people who have unintentionally lost weight due to an underlying health problem (diagnosed or undiagnosed).
As these people would be at higher risk of death, despite measuring in at a lower weight, they muddy the waters making lower BMI levels look more dangerous (or in comparison higher BMI levels look safer) than they are.
To test their hypothesis, the researcher looked at data from the US NHANES study linked to death registers using four different approaches:
Model 1: BMI measured at the time of survey (this is the method most commonly used in epidemiological studies)
Model 2: The highest reported lifetime BMI at the time of survey
Model 3: Individuals surveyed in their current BMI class who had never been heavier compared to individuals in that BMI class who reported formerly being in a higher BMI class.
Model 4: Individuals surveyed in their current BMI class compared to people who were formerly in that BMI class but had moved to a lower BMI class by the time of the survey.
In both models 1 and 2, there was a greater risk of mortality with higher BMI class, but the relationship was stronger in model 2 (highest lifetime BMI) than in model 1 (current BMI).
In model 3, there was still an increased risk with higher BMI class but within each current BMI class, risk was higher in individuals who had previously belonged to a higher BMI class.
In model 4, mortality also rose with the highest weight achieved but was markedly higher in individuals who lost weight after achieving a particular BMI category compared to those who remained at that maximum.
These findings have important implications for our understanding of the relationship between BMI and mortality.
As the authors note,
“Confining analytic attention to survey BMI alone thus sacrifices important information provided by an individual’s maximum BMI. The poor performance of the survey-only model is especially salient because models using only BMI at survey dominate the set of findings in the literature on the relation between BMI and mortality.”
The errors in not considering highest BMI are not trivial.
“33.9% of individuals in the sample who were normal weight at survey were formerly overweight, and this group had three times the prevalence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease CVD) relative to those who were in the normal-weight category at both max and survey.”
Here is how you would interpret the data,
“Disease prevalence and mortality both rise with increases in maximum BMI and rise even further for those who reach a particular maximum BMI category and then lose weight. These patterns strongly suggest that obesity raises the risk of diabetes and CVD and that, once acquired, these diseases often precipitate weight loss….Only by using weight histories can this pattern of erasure be identified and corrected.”
The use of historical data in determining risk would not be a new concept,
“The introduction of historical data in the analysis of smoking occurred more than a half century ago, when studies began to distinguish among current-, former-, and never-smokers.”
Similarly, in the context of obesity one would need to differentiate between people who currently have obesity, people who previously had obesity, and people who never had obesity.
All of this only works, because in these type of epidemiological studies, “intentional” weight loss, be it through behaviour change, medication or surgery, is so rare as to be non-existent. Virtually all weight loss seen at a population level in “unintentional” and probably related to underlying health issues.
Thus, one should not interpret these findings to mean that someone intentionally losing weight through behavioural, medical or surgical treatments is at a higher risk for mortality – the intervention studies we have on that (this cannot be studied in population studies as there are so few cases of “treated” obesity), suggest otherwise.
For clinicians, these data point to the importance of noting the highest BMI and not just current BMI – if the patient has lost weight (especially if this is not explained by obesity treatment), then this may be a high-risk patient.