Yesterday, the UK Government announced a plan to spend £40 million on a two-year pilot to explore ways to make obesity drugs accessible to patients living with obesity outside of hospital settings.
As readers may know, anti-obesity medications including semaglutide have already been approved for prescription in hospital-based obesity clinics in the UK (albeit its use is limited to just two years, which makes little sense for a chronic disease like obesity).
As noted in the announcement, however, this limitation to use in hospital-based clinics will only reach about 35,000 people living with obesity, a tiny fraction of the over 12 million people with BMIs >30 kg/m2 in the UK.
According to the release, “Obesity costs the NHS around £6.5 billion a year and is the second biggest cause of cancer. There were more than 1 million admissions to NHS hospitals in 2019/2020 where obesity was a factor.”
The pilot will explore how approved anti-obesity drugs can be made safely available to more people by expanding specialist weight management services outside of hospital settings. This includes looking at how GPs could safely prescribe these drugs and how the NHS can provide support in the community or digitally.
The hope is that wider use of these medications can help cut waiting lists by reducing the number of people who suffer from weight-related illnesses, who tend to need more support from the NHS and could end up needing operations linked to their weight – such as gallstone removal or hip and knee replacements.
These activities to improve access to anti-obesity medications, of course, also includes negotiating a secure long-term supply of the products at prices that represent value for money taxpayers.
Obviously, this is a step in the right direction, as I have previously noted that to have a discernible impact on population health, anti-obesity medications will ultimately have to be made available and properly managed by GPs, not unlike their management of hypertension, diabetes or other common chronic diseases.
It will be interesting to see how this pilot develops and if other countries in Europe and elsewhere will follow suit.
Disclaimer: I have received honoraria as an independent medical, research and/or educational consultant from various companies including Aidhere, Allurion, Boehringer Ingelheim, Currax, Eli-Lilly, Johnson & Johnson, Medscape, MDBriefcase, Novo Nordisk, Oviva and Xenobiosciences.
This week, I once again presented on the need for recognising obesity as a chronic disease at the annual European Society for the Study of Obesity Collaborating Centres for Obesity (EASO-COMs) in Leipzig, Germany.
Coincidently, The Lancet this week also published a commentary (of which I am a co-author) on the urgent need to change the obesity “narrative”.
So far, the prevailing obesity “narrative” is that this is a condition largely caused by people’s lifestyle “choices” primarily pertaining to eating too much and not moving enough, and that this condition can therefore be prevented and reversed simply by getting people to make better choices, or in other words, eating less and moving more.
As pointed out in the commentary, this “narrative” flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence that obesity is a rather complex multi-factorial heterogenous disorder, where long-term success of individual or population-based “lifestyle” interventions can be characterised as rather modest (and that is being rather generous).
This is not to say that public health measures targeting food intake and activity are not important – but these measures go well beyond “personal responsibility”
” The established narrative on obesity relies on a simplistic causal model with language that generally places blame on individuals who bear sole responsibility for their obesity. This approach disregards the complex interplay between factors not within individuals’ control (eg, epigenetic, biological, psychosocial) and powerful wider environmental factors and activity by industry (eg, food availability and price, the built environment, manufacturers’ marketing, policies, culture) that underpin obesity. A siloed focus on individual responsibility leads to a failure to address these wider factors for which government policy can and should take a leading role. Potential health-systems solutions are also held back by insufficient understanding of obesity as a chronic disease and of the necessary integration across specialties.“
It is also important to recognise that the prevailing “lifestyle” narrative plays a major role in the issue of weight-bias and discrimination:
“Behind every obesity statistic are real people living with obesity. The prevailing narrative wrongly portrays people with obesity in negative terms as “guilty” of obesity through “weakness” and “lack of willpower”, succumbing to the siren call of fast and other poor food choices. This narrative leads to stigmatisation, discrimination—including in health services, employment, and education—and undermines individual agency.“
Thus, it is time to change this narrative:
“If the narrative is instead reframed around individuals at risk of or living with obesity as protagonists with agency who operate within physiological limitations and a much larger obesogenic environment over which their control is limited, then a better, more accurate story can be told.“
This new narrative must incorporate four dimensions.
“First, recognise that obesity requires multiple discrete actors and sectors to work together simultaneously through many entry points. Second, change the words and images used to portray obesity to shift blame away from individuals and towards upstream drivers. For example, photographs of anonymous or faceless people with obesity must be substituted with images of real people that foster respect and identification. Third, prioritise childhood obesity and the growing burden of obesity in low-income settings. Rights-based policy approaches that address inequalities and social and physical determinants of obesity are particularly relevant. Finally, appreciate that obesity is a chronic disease within the health system, with both its prevention and management embedded within calls for effective and comprehensive universal health coverage globally.“
Following this line of reasoning we argue that,
“Shifting to a human-focused narrative that encompasses this vulnerability and complexity will require effort and commitment across many sectors. We call on all affected by or concerned with obesity to come together with a common sense of purpose and shared accountability for building this new narrative and a more comprehensive response to obesity.“
Not discussed in this paper (largely due to space limitation), is my pet peeve, that we also need a new non-anthropometric definition of obesity – one that relies on actual health measures rather than just scales and measuring tapes. As we move to a “disease” definition of obesity, we need to ensure that we are not mis-labeling healthy individuals as “diseased” just because they happen to exceed a certain body weight, as well as the corollary, mis-labeling individuals who may stand to benefit from obesity treatments as not having obesity just because they fall below an arbitrary BMI cutoff.
Over a decade ago, together with over 120 colleagues from across Canada, representing over 30 Canadian Universities and Institutions, I helped found the Canadian Obesity Network with the support of funding from the Canadian National Centres of Excellence Program.
Since then the Canadian Obesity Network has grown into a large and influential organisation, with well over 20,000 professional members and public supporters, with a significant range across Canada and beyond.
During the course of its existence, the Network has organised countless educational events for health professionals, provided training and networking opportunities to a host of young researchers and trainees, developed a suite of obesity management tools (e.g. the 5As of obesity management for adults, kids and during pregnancy), held National Obesity Summits and National Student Meetings. raised funds for obesity research, the list of achievements goes on and on.
Most importantly, the Network has taken on important new roles in public engagement, voicing the needs and concerns of Canadians living with obesity, and advocating for better access to evidence-based prevention and treatments for children and adults across Canada.
To better reflect this expanded mission and vision, the Board of Directors has decided to convert the Canadian Obesity Network into a registered health charity under the new name – Obesity Canada – Obésité Canada.
So with one sad eye, I look back and hope that the Canadian Obesity Network rests in peace – Long Live Obesity Canada!
There is no doubt that some people gain weight when started on anti-depressant medications. However, it is also true that the increased appetite and listlessness that accompanies “atypical” depression can contribute to weight gain. Finally, there is evidence that weight-gain in turn may decrease mood, which in turn may further exacerbate weight gain.
Trying to cut through all of this is a study by Rafael Gafoor and colleagues from King’s College London, in a paper published in BMJ.
They examined data from the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, 2004-14, which included data on 136,762 men and 157,957 women with three or more records for body mass index (BMI).
In the year of study entry, 17,803 (13.0%) men and 35,307 (22.4%) women with a mean age of 51.5 years were prescribed anti-depressants.
While during 1, 836,452 person years of follow-up, the incidence of new episodes of ≥5 weight gain in participants not prescribed anti-depressants was 8.1 per 100 person years, it was slightly higher at 11.2 per 100 person years in those prescribed an anti-depressant.
In the second year of treatment the number of participants treated with antidepressants for one year for one additional episode of ≥5% weight gain was 27.
Thus, there appears to be a slight but discernible increased risk of weight gain associated with the prescription of anti-depressants, which may persist over time and appears highest during the second and third year of treatment.
However, as the authors caution, these associations may not be causal, and residual confounding might contribute to overestimation of associations.
Nevertheless, the notion that there may be a distinct weight-promoting pharmacological effect of some anti-depressants is supported by the finding that certain anti-depressants (e.g. mirtazapine) carry a far greater risk of weight gain than others (e.g. paroxetine).
Given the frequency with which anti-depressants are prescribed, it could be argued that the contribution of anti-depressants to the overall obesity epidemic (particularly in adults) may be greater than previously appreciated.
If nothing else, patients prescribed anti-depressants should be carefully monitored for weight gain and preventive measures may need to be instituted early if weight gain becomes noticeable.
While at the level of the individual, clinicians are beginning to acknowledge the vast body of research now showing that “lifestyle” approaches to managing obesity (“eat-less move more”) result in minimal outcomes (3-5% sustainable weight loss at best), public health attempts to address the obesity epidemic continue to perpetuate the myth that obesity (and its prevention) is simply about getting people to eat better and move more (with very little evidence to show that such measures can be implemented at a population level to effect any noticeable change in obesity rates).
In an article I co-authored with Ximena Ramos-Salas, published in Current Obesity Reports, we provide an in-depth overview of current public health policies to address obesity in Canada and argue that the “narrative” underlying these policies is an important driver of weight-bias and discrimination and significantly hindering efforts to provide Canadians living with obesity better access to obesity prevention and treatment efforts.
As we state in the article (based on original research by Ramos-Salas and others),
“A critical review of Canadian obesity prevention policies and strategies revealed five prevailing narratives about obesity: “(1) childhood obesity threatens the health of future generations and must be prevented; (2) obesity can be prevented through healthy eating and physical activity; (3) obesity is an individual behavior problem; (4) achieving a healthy body weight should be a population health target; and (5) obesity is a risk factor for other chronic diseases not a disease in itself”. These narratives create the opportunity for Canadian obesity policy recommendations to focus mainly on individual-based healthy eating and physical activity interventions. By simplifying the causes of obesity as unhealthy eating and lack of physical activity, these policies may be contributing to the belief that obesity can be solely controlled through individual behaviors. This belief is a fundamental driver of weight bias.”
This “world-view” of obesity at the level of policy makers has a significant impact on the willingness and capacity of health systems to provide access to evidence-based obesity treatments to the nearly 7 million Canadian adults and children living with this chronic disease – in fact, the unwillingness to even consider obesity a chronic disease is a big part of the problem.
“..the conceptualization of obesity as a risk factor in public health policies has implications for government action, by prioritizing prevention over treatment strategies and potentially alienating Canadians who already have obesity. The review concludes that existing Canadian public health policies and strategies (a) are not sufficiently comprehensive (i.e., solely focused on prevention and mainly focused on children; exclude evidence-based management approaches; are not person-centered); (b) are based on reductionist obesity models (i.e., models that cast shame and blame on individuals by focusing on individuals’ responsibility for their weight); and (c) do not account for individual heterogeneity in body size and weight (i.e., generalize weight and health outcomes at the population level).”
In contrast we suggest that,
“Adopting a chronic disease framework for obesity would imply that both prevention and management strategies need to be implemented. Within this chronic disease context, public health should ensure that strategies do not have unintended consequences for individuals and populations, such as perpetuating weight bias. There is now sufficient evidence demonstrating that weight bias and obesity stigma are fundamental drivers of health inequalities. Public health has an opportunity to leverage existing health promotion frameworks such as the health for all policy framework and the global plan of action on social determinants of health to address weight bias and obesity stigma”.
Based on the analyses presented in this paper, we make the following recommendations:
Canadian provincial and territorial governments, employers, and the health insurance industry should officially adopt the position of the Canadian Medical Association and the World Health Organization that obesity is a chronic disease and orient their approach/resources accordingly.
Canadian provincial and territorial governments should recognize that weight bias and obesity stigma are significant barriers to helping people with obesity and enshrine rights in provincial/territorial human rights codes, workplace regulations, healthcare systems, and education policies.
In an era of people-centered health care, public health and health system decision makers should engage people with obesity in the development of policies and strategies. Having active participation of individuals with obesity can help change negative attitudes and beliefs about obesity and facilitate the development of compassionate and equitable health promotion strategies.
Employers should recognize and treat obesity as a chronic disease and provide coverage for evidence-based obesity treatments for their employees through health benefit plans.
Provincial and territorial governments should increase training for health professionals on obesity prevention and management.
Existing Canadian Clinical Practice Guidelines for the management and treatment of obesity in adults should be updated to reflect advances in obesity management and treatment in order to support the development of evidence-based programs and strategies by health systems, employers and health insurance companies.