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Counting Calories For Weight Loss – More of The Same

If there is one article in the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity that we could have well done without, it is surely the one by Eve Guth promoting the age-old notion that simply counting calories is a viable and effective means to manage body weight. As the author suggests: “It is better for physicians to advise patients to assess and then modify their current eating habits and then reduce their caloric ingestion by counting calories. Counseling patients to do this involves provision of simple handouts detailing the calorie content of common foods, suggested meal plan options, an explanation of a nutrition label, and a list of websites with more detailed information. Patients should be advised that eating about 3500 calories a week in excess of the amount of calories expended results in gaining 1 lb (0.45 kg) of body weight. If a patient reduces caloric ingestion by 500 calories per day for 7 days, she or he would lose about 1 lb of body weight per week, depending on a number of other factors. This is a reasonable and realistic place to start because this approach is easily understood and does not ask a patient to radically change behavior.” There is so much wrong with this approach, that it is hard to know exactly where to start. For one, this advise is based on the simplistic assumption that obesity is simply a matter of managing calories to achieve and sustain long-term weight loss. Not only, do we have ample evidence that these type of approaches rarely result in long-term sustained weight-loss but, more importantly this type of advice comfortably ignores the vast body of scientific literature that tells us that body weight is a tightly regulated physiological variable and that there are a host of complex neuroendocrine responses that will defend our bodies against long-term weight loss – mechanisms that most people (irrespective of whether they have obesity or not) will find it exceedingly hard to overcome with “will-power” alone. No doubt, caloric “awareness” can be an eye-opener for many patients and there is good evidence that keeping a food journal can positively influence dietary patterns and even reduce “emotional” eating. But the idea that cognitively harnessing “will-power” to count calories (a very “unnatural” behaviour indeed), thereby creating and sustaining a long-term state of caloric deficit is rather optimistic at best. In fact, legions of people who have been… Read More »

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Taxing Sugar-Sweetened Beverages To Prevent Obesity

In addition to the series of article on long-term outcomes in bariatric surgery, the 2018 special issue of JAMA on obesity, also features several articles discussing the potential role of taxing or otherwise regulating the use of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSB) as a policy measure to address obesity. In a first article, Jennifer Pomeranz and colleagues discuss whether or not governments can in fact require health warnings on advertisements for sugar-sweetend beverages. The discussion focuses on an injunction issued by the Ninth Circuit Court on the enforcement of San Francisco’s requirement that sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) advertisements display a health warning statement, finding that this law likely violated the First Amendment rights of advertisers of SSBs. The background for this court decision was the fact that San Francisco passed a law requiring SSB advertisers to display: “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.” In its decision, the court felt that the proposed warning label was not scientifically accurate, as it focussed exclusively on “added sugar(s)” rather than sugars overall. It appears that there is no scientific evidence suggesting that “added sugars” are any more (or less) harmful than the “natural” sugar occurring in any other foods or beverages). However, as the authors argue, warning on SSB may well be warranted as “In addition to being a major source of added sugar in the US diet, the liquid form of SSBs could enable rapid consumption and digestion without the same satiety cues as solid foods. SSBs also contain no relevant ingredients to provide offsetting health benefits, in comparison with sweetened whole grain cereals, nut bars, yogurt, or other foods with added sugars, which can have healthful components. Furthermore, the associations of SSBs with weight gain, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease are each stronger and more consistent than for added sugars in solid foods. In addition, compared with other foods containing added sugars, SSBs are the only source for which randomized controlled trials have confirmed the observational link to weight gain.” Another point of contention identified by the court was related to the fact that the warning stated harm irrespective of quantity and would have been more accurate had it included the term “overconsumption” or at leas the qualifier “may”. Here, the authors argue that, “health risks of SSBs increase monotonically. Thus, use of the word… Read More »

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DIRECT Remission of Type 2 Diabetes in Primary Care?

There is no reasonable argument against the fact that excess weight gain is one of the key drivers of diabetes risk, and it should come as no surprise to anyone, that losing weight (though bariatric surgery or otherwise) dramatically improves glycemic control in people living with type 2 diabetes. So what exactly can we learn from the DIRECT study published by Michael Lean and colleagues in The Lancet? For one, this is a large cluster-randomised trial of obesity intervention conducted entirely in a non-specialist primary care setting with significant weight loss (at least 15 Kg) and diabetes remission (defined as glycated haemoglobin (HbA1c) of less than 6·5% after at least 2 months off all antidiabetic medications) as the pre-defined primary outcome at 12 months. In the intervention centres, a nurse or dietitian (as available locally) was given a total of 8 h structured training by the study research dietitians experienced in the Counterweight-Plus program. Initial weight loss was induced with a total diet replacement phase using a low energy formula diet (825–853 kcal/day) for 3 months (extendable up to 5 months if wished by participant), followed by structured food reintroduction of 2–8 weeks (about 50% carbohydrate, 35% total fat, and 15% protein), and an ongoing structured programme with monthly visits for long-term weight loss maintenance. Given the primary care non-specialist setting of this trial, the key findings (as summarized by the authors), were perhaps surprising: “Just less than a quarter of participants in the intervention group achieved weight loss of 15 kg or more at 12 months, half maintained more than 10 kg loss, and almost half had remission of diabetes, off antidiabetic medication….Remission was closely related to the degree of weight loss maintained at 12 months, with achievement in 86% of participants with at least 15 kg weight loss, and 73% of those with weight loss of 10 kg or more. 28% of all eligible individuals volunteered to participate,17 and 79% completed the intensive total diet replacement phase…” In general, the intervention was well tolerated with 117 out of 150 participants (78%) in the intervention group completing the intervention. So here are the key learning from DIRECT: For one, there should no longer be any doubt that “remission” of Type 2 diabetes is possible in a substantial number of patients, if we can help them achieve and sustain significant weight loss – the odds of experiencing remission are directly proportional… Read More »

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Residential Schools And Indigenous Obesity – More Than Just Hunger?

A recent CMAJ article, by Ian Mosby and Tracey Galloway from the University of Toronto argues that one of the key reasons why we see obesity and diabetes so rampant in Canada’s indigenous populations, is the fact that widespread and persistent exposure to hunger during the notorious residential school system may have metabolically “programmed” who generations toward a greater propensity for obesity and type 2 diabetes. There is indeed a very plausible biological hypothesis for this, “Hunger itself has profound consequences for childhood development. Children experiencing hunger have an activated hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal stress response. This causes increased cortisol secretion which, over the long term, blunts insulin response, inhibits the function of insulin-like growth factor and produces long-term changes in lipid metabolism. Through this process, the child’s physiology is essentially “programmed” by hunger to continue the cycle of worsening effects, with their bodies displaying a rapid tendency for fat-mass accumulation when nutritional resources become available.” While the impact of hunger may well have been one of the key drivers or metabolic changes, the authors failed to acknowledge another (even more?) important consequence of residential schools – the impact on mental health. Oddly enough, in a blog post I wrote back in 2008, I discussed the notion that the significant (and widespread) physical, emotional, and sexual abuse experienced by the generations of indigenous kids exposed to the residential school system would readily explain much of the rampant psychological problems (addictions, depression, PTSD, etc.) present in the indigenous populations across Canada today. The following is an excerpt from this previous post: This disastrous and cruel [residential school] policy resulted in much pain and despair in the First Nations’, Inuit and Metis people that lasts to this day (known as the “generational effect”). Sexual, physical and mental abuse was widespread; students were broken in heart and spirit; culture and identities were destroyed. Much (if not all) of what ails the Aboriginal peoples of Canada can be traced back to this policy – including possibly issues that affect Aboriginal health to this day. It is no secret that obesity and its consequences (e.g. diabetes) are rampant amongst the Aboriginal peoples of Canada. While poverty, breakdown of traditional lifestyle and culture and even genetic factors (thrifty genotype) have all been implicated in this, I wonder how much the misery caused by the residential school program had to contribute. Early traumatic life experiences including sexual, mental and physical… Read More »

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Alternate Day Fasting Is No Better Than Any Other Fad Diet

It seems that every year someone else comes up with a diet that can supposedly conquer obesity and all others health problems of civilization. In almost every case, the diet is based on some “new” insight into how our bodies function, or how our ancestors (read – hunters gatherers (never mind that they only lived to be 35) ate, or how modern foods are killing us (never mind that the average person has never lived longer than ever before), or how (insert remote population here) lives today with no chronic disease. Throw in some scientific terms like “ketogenic”, “guten”, “anti-oxidant”, “fructose”, or “insulin”, add some level of restriction and unusual foods, and (most importantly) get celebrity endorsement and “testemonials” and you have a best-seller (and a successful speaking career) ready to go. The problem is that, no matter what the “scientific” (sounding) theories suggest, there is little evidence that the enthusiastic promises of any of these hold up under the cold light of scientific study. Therefore, I am not the least surprised that the same holds true for the much hyped “alternative-day fasting diet”, which supposedly is best for us, because it mimics how our pre-historic ancestors apparently made it to the ripe age of 35 without obesity and heart attacks. Thus, a year-long randomised controlled study by John Trepanowski and colleagues, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, shows that alternate day fasting is evidently no better in producing superior adherence, weight loss, weight maintenance, or cardioprotection compared to good old daily calorie restriction (which also produces modest long-term results at best). In fact, the alternate day fasting group had significantly more dropouts than both the daily calorie restriction and control group (38% vs. 29% and 26% respectively). Mean weight loss was virtually identical between both intervention groups (~6 Kg). Purists of course will instantly critisize that the study did not actually test alternative-day fasting, as more people dropped out and most of the participants who stayed in that group actually ate more than prescribed on fast days, and less than prescribed on feast days – but that is exactly the point of this kind of study – to test whether the proposed diet works in “real life”, because no one in “real life” can ever be expected to be perfectly compliant with any diet. In fact, again, as this study shows, the more “restrictive” the diet (and, yes, starving yourself… Read More »

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