Alberta’s Obesity Initiative: Not Just Diet and Exercise!

From left, Dr. Arya Sharma, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, patient Jim Starko and Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Chris Eagle

From left, Dr. Arya Sharma, Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, patient Jim Starko and Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Chris Eagle

Yesterday, Alberta Health Services CEO, Dr. Chris Eagle, formally announced the launch of a 5-year comprehensive initiative, that will address Alberta’s obesity problem across the continuum of care – from prevention and health promotion – to primary care – to speciality services, including increased capacity for bariatric surgery.

At the launch event, Alberta’s Minister of Health and Wellness, Gene Zwozdesky, not only demonstrated the Government’s full support but also emphasized its commitment to provide stable funding for this important initiative – as he pointed out, there will be no quick fix, but not addressing obesity is simply not an option.

The following are excerpts from my brief presentation at this launch:

“Four years ago, I came to Alberta because I saw the opportunity to help do something that no health system has done before – find a way to address what many consider the greatest health problem of our times – obesity, a condition that today causes more pain, suffering, despair, frustration and cost to Albertans than any other medical condition.

If simply losing weight by eating less and moving more worked as a treatment for obesity, we would not have this problem – I have yet to meet an obese patient, who has never lost weight before – many have lost 100s of lbs over their lifetime only to put them back on.

Imagine the will power and commitment that goes into losing 100s of lbs – these are not lazy people, they are not people who are not motivated, they are not people who do not understand how their excess weight affects their health or their livelihood– they are not people who are stupid or just don’t get it.

When you hear someone say that all you need is a life style change – I have a message for you – “Changing your lifestyle is more about changing your life than your style”.

We work more hours today than ever before – many of us check our e-mails before we get out of bed – we check them again last thing before turning out the lights. We sleep fewer hours than ever before, we have longer commutes, we have fewer children, we have less time to buy and prepare healthy foods – unhealthy foods have never been cheaper – healthy foods have never been more expensive. I have often said that the so-called ‘fast-food problem’ is not really a ‘food’ problem at all – it is a ‘time’ problem – we have created a society in which we do not even have enough time to eat.

Our parents and grandparents were paid to be physically active – today you have to pay to be physically active, and I am not just talking about buying a good pair of running shoes – for many of us time IS money.

We use food for comfort, to celebrate, but also to cope with stress, depression, anxiety, trauma, addictions, lack of sleep, physical and emotional pain.

Our genes have not changed, but we know now that the genes you got from your parents and grandparents can actually be switched on or off, depending on how much weight your mother gained during pregnancy, what she ate, how much she exercised, not to mention smoking, stress, or gestational diabetes – all of which can permanently change how genes you are born with actually work – In fact, there is now good evidence that perhaps much of childhood obesity starts in the womb.

So not only are there many causes of obesity – stress, depression, lack of sleep or even medications that can make you gain weight – unfortunately, there is also no simple solution to losing weight and keeping it off – yes, losing weight is easy, but keeping it off is not. This is why commercial weight loss centres can sell you weight-loss, but cannot offer you obesity treatment.

In fact, whether you lose weight by dieting, exercising, taking pills or even having surgery – when the treatment stops the weight comes back – this is why we consider obesity a chronic disease!

In fact, rather than talking about losing weight – we would already be better off if people simply stopped gaining weight – if you are 200 lbs today and still only 200 lbs in 10 years – you will have done pretty well!

That is exactly the challenge we face – Although we now have a better understanding of the complex societal, psychological and biomedical causes of obesity – we do not have a cure.

The good news is that we can prevent obesity and for those, who already carry extra weight, we do have treatments that work – however, the same principles apply as for any chronic disease – patient education, professional guidance and using the many resources in the community to better manage this condition.

Unfortunately, despite all of this – those with severe obesity and 100s of lbs to lose may need surgery – at least till we come up with better medical treatments.

Today, I am excited about this plan to tackle obesity – rather than spending more and more money on treating diabetes, heart disease, replacing hips and knees, or buying CPAP machines, let us spend our health care dollars where they can really make a difference. I see far more value in my taxes going to preventing and treating obesity than continuing to pour endless money into treating its complications – every dollar spent on obesity prevention and treatment could be 10s of dollars saved on treating its complications.

When you treat diabetes you treat diabetes, when you treat heart disease you treat heart disease, when you treat osteoarthritis you treat osteoarthritis, but when you treat obesity you treat all of the above and more!”

For a brief video on the obesity problem in Alberta click here.

For the AHS news release on the launch of the Alberta Health Services Obesity Initiative click here.

Edmonton, Alberta