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McKinsey on Obesity: Doing Something Beats Doing Nothing



McKinsey Overcoming ObesityLast week the McKinsey Global Institute, with much media fanfare, released a 120 page discussion paper titled, “Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis“, which estimates that the economic cost of the global obesity epidemic is upwards of $2 trillion, a number similar to the economic cost of tobacco consumption or armed conflicts.

The report identifies 74 interventions in 18 areas (ranging from policy and population health to health care) deemed to be cost effective, which, if implemented, could lead to annual savings of $1.2 billion in the UK National Health Services alone.

However, when it comes to the actual impact of these 74 strategies, the report is far more sobering in that it notes that many of these interventions are far from proven:

“The evidence base on the clinical and behavioral interventions to reduce obesity is far from complete, and ongoing investment in research is imperative. However, in many cases this is proving a barrier to action. It need not be so. We should experiment with solutions and try them out rather than waiting for perfect proof of what works, especially in the many areas where interventions are low risk. We have enough knowledge to be taking more action than we currently are.”

In other words, let’s not wait to find out what works – let’s just do something – anything (and keep our fingers crossed).

Thus, the report urges us to

“(1) deploy as many interventions as possible at scale and delivered effectively by the full range of sectors in society; (2) understand how to align incentives and build cooperation; and (3) do not focus unduly on prioritizing interventions because this can hamper constructive action.”

I can see why politicians would welcome these recommendations, as they are essentially a carte blanche to either doing nothing (we don’t have the evidence) or doing whatever they want (anything is better than nothing).

The fact that,

“Based on existing evidence, any single intervention is likely to have only a small overall impact on its own. A systemic, sustained portfolio of initiatives, delivered at scale, is needed to address the health burden.”

means that when any measure fails, it is not because it was the wrong measure but because there was either not enough of it or it was not complemented by additional measures.

Again, a free pass for politicians, who can pass whatever measures they want (based on their political ideologies or populistic pressure from their constituencies), without having to demonstrate that what they did, had any effect at all.

Of course, no report on obesity would be complete without also stressing the importance of “personal responsibility”, as if this was somehow more important for obesity than it is for diabetes, lung disease, heart disease, or any other disease I can think of.

Unfortunately, the report also includes rather nonsensical statements like,

“44 interventions bring 20% of overweight/obese Britons back to normal weight”

a sentence that defies the very chronic nature of obesity, where once established excess weight is vigorously “defended” by complex neuroendocrine responses that will counteract any change in energy balance to sustain excess body weight.

Thus, unfortunately, the authors fall into the common misconception about obesity simply being a matter of calories in and calories out, a balance that can be volitionally adjusted to achieve whatever body weight you wish to have.

Indeed, there is very little discussion in this “discussion paper” of the underlying biology of obesity, although it is acknowledged in passing:

“Even though there are important outstanding questions about diet composition, gut microbiome, and epigenetics, we are not walking blind with no sense of what to address. However, interventions to increase physical activity, reduce energy consumption, and address diet composition cannot just seek to reverse the historical trends that have left the population where it is today. For example, we cannot, nor would we wish to, reverse the invention of the Internet or the industrialization of agriculture. We need to assess what interventions make sense and are feasible in 2014.”

Will this report move governments to action? Or, even more importantly, will this report bring us any closer to reversing the epidemic or providing better treatments to people who already have obesity?

Readers may appreciate that I am not holding my breath quite yet.

ƒƒ@DrSharma
Edmonton, AB
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2 Comments

  1. “Let’s not wait to find out what works…” It looks very much like we’re back to the McGovern report era as they wanted to tackle cholesterol on cherry-picked research results.

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  2. In this article Dr Sharma suggests . . . . once established, excess weight is vigorously defended by complex neuroendocrine responses that will counteract any change in energy balance to sustain excess body weight.
    I am wondering if there has been any research around pregnancy weights and if that becomes a woman’s ‘new default’ weight? I see women who are quite successful in losing their pregnancy weight, but as they age that pregnancy weight seems to be a threshold their body wants to go to.
    Thoughts?

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