Treating Obesity Seriously Starts By Understanding The Problem

sharma-obesity-doctor-kidThat there are no easy solutions to obesity and managing your weight is challenging at the best of times. But trying to find manage it without understanding even the basics of how your body works to defend its weight is hopeless at best.

A sort paper by Christopher Ochner and colleagues, published in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology, succinctly describes the challenges, and appeals to clinicians (and decision makers) to take this problem seriously (instead of trivialising it as a simple “lifestyle” issue).

“Many clinicians are not adequately aware of the reasons that individuals with obesity struggle to achieve and maintain weight loss, and this poor awareness precludes the provision of effective intervention.”

As readers of these pages are well aware,

“Irrespective of starting weight, caloric restriction triggers several biological adaptations designed to prevent starvation. These adaptations might be potent enough to undermine the long-term effectiveness of lifestyle modification in most individuals with obesity, particularly in an environment that promotes energy overconsumption.”

But is is not just about the body’s defense mechanisms.

“Additional biological adaptations occur with the development of obesity and these function to preserve, or even increase, an individual’s highest sustained lifetime bodyweight. For example, preadipocyte proliferation occurs, increasing fat storage capacity. In addition, habituation to rewarding neural dopamine signalling develops with the chronic overconsumption of palatable foods, leading to a perceived reward deficit and compensatory increases in consumption.”

“…improved lifestyle choices might be sufficient for lasting reductions in bodyweight prior to sustained obesity. Once obesity is established, however, bodyweight seems to become biologically stamped in and defended. Therefore, the mere recommendation to avoid calorically dense foods might be no more effective for the typical patient seeking weight reduction than would be a recommendation to avoid sharp objects for someone bleeding profusely.”

As the authors point out,

“…there is now good evident that these biological adaptations often persist indefinitely, even when a person re-attains a healthy BMI via behaviourally induced weight loss….Thus, we suggest that few individuals ever truly recover from obesity; individuals who formerly had obesity but are able to re-attain a healthy bodyweight via diet and exercise still have ‘obesity in remission’ and are biologically very different from individuals of the same age, sex, and bodyweight who never had obesity.”

To overcome these biological adaptations it is not enough to appeal or rely on will-power alone to sustain long-term weight loss. Rather, treatments need to address these biological adaptations and homeostatic mechanisms, which is exactly what anti-obesity drugs or surgery does.

Thus, the authors have the following advice for clinicians:

“Specifically, clinicians should be proactive in addressing obesity prevention with patients who are overweight and, for those who already have sustained obesity, clinicians should implement a multimodal treatment approach that includes biologically based interventions such as pharmacotherapy and surgery when appropriate.”

“We urge individuals in the medical and scientific community to seek a better understanding of the biological factors that maintain obesity and to approach it as a disease that cannot be reliably prevented or cured with current frontline methods.”

Edmonton, AB