When To Recommend Weight Loss For ObesityMonday, April 16, 2018
Obesity medicine, which I define as the medical care of someone living with obesity, should approach patients holistically with the aim of improving their overall health and well-being. Advice to lose weight may or may not be part of obesity management – much can be gained for someone living with obesity by promoting their health behaviours, getting them to feel better about themselves, improving their mental health, and helping them better managing their health issues. Much of this can be achieved with no or very little weight loss.
Thus, we must consider the question of when weight loss would specifically need to be part of the treatment objectives.
In my own practice, I approach this problem by considering the following three questions:
- Is this a problem unrelated to abnormal or excess body weight?
- Is this a problem aggravated by abnormal or excess body weight?
- Is this a problem caused by abnormal or excess body weight?
From what I hear from my patients, the most common mistakes in medical practice fall into the first group – trying to address unrelated issues with weight loss recommendations. There are endless stories of patients going to see their health provider with problems clearly unrelated to their body fat (e.g. a broken arm, a sore throat, the flu, depression, migraines, etc.), who simply get told to lose weight. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that patients with obesity are less likely to undergo diagnostic testing, most likely based on the assumption that their problems are simply related to their excess weight. This is not only where grave medical errors can be made (late or misdiagnosis), but also where the advice to lose weight is clearly wrong. If the presenting problem has nothing to do with excess weight, then no amount of weight loss will fix it.
The second category deals with issues that are not causally related to abnormal or excess body fat but where the underlying problem either causes more symptoms or is more difficult to treat because of the patient’s size or fat distribution. There are countless medical problems that fall into this category. For e.g. a heart or respiratory problem entirely unrelated to excess weight (e.g. a valvular defect or asthma) can become worse, cause more symptoms, or be much more difficult to treat simply because of the patient’s size. This group also includes issues like neck or joint pain from a trauma (e.g. a motor vehicle or skiing accident), reflux disease (e.g. from a hiatal hernia), urinary incontinence (from multiple child births), etc., etc., etc. – the list is long. Here, although obesity has nothing to do with the underlying problem, weight loss may alleviate the symptoms or at least make them more manageable (they are however unlikely to be fully resolved). These patients present with what may be described as a relative or “secondary” indication for weight loss. Of course, if there are viable treatments options for the primary problem, then this is where the emphasis should be. Weight loss can best be considered as “second-line” treatment. It would be completely unethical to withhold effective treatment for the underlying problem just because of the patient’s size (as in, “no treatment for you until you lose X lbs!”)
Finally, we have the third category of health issues that are directly causally linked to the excess weight – in most cases, the problem did not exist prior to weight gain and losing weight is often likely to completely resolve the problem (unless the patient has already sustained irreversible organ damage). This group of health issues not only includes the vast majority of cases of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, obstructive sleep apnea, fatty liver disease, infertility, etc. but also all of the functional limitations that people may experience simply because of their excess body fat. This is the only category of patients who would be deemed to have a “primary” indication for weight loss. Losing the weight literally solves their problem. Indeed, trying to manage the problem without weight loss is nothing less than “palliative” care. This is not to say that weight loss will always guarantee success even if the underlying problem is directly related to excess weight. For e.g. although there is ample evidence that excess weight is a prime risk factor for gall bladder disease, (rapid) weight loss may actually promote formation of gall stones. Similarly, although intertrigo (skin fold infections) can occur as a direct consequence of excess weight (e.g. chaffing), losing weight may actually make the problem worse by deepening the skin folds. Thus, even in this category, one needs to carefully consider risk-benefit ratios.
Of course, any recommendation to lose weight must take into account the complex nature of obesity in the first place and the fact that long-term weight-loss maintenance will require an approach (behavioural, medical, or even surgical) that takes into account the chronic relapsing nature of this disorder. Simply telling people with obesity to “eat less and move more” is about as medically sound and effective, as simply telling people with depression to “cheer up”.
Both, to avoid grave medical errors and to not insult their patients, I strongly recommend that medical practitioners first approach all their patients with obesity based on the assumption (that their presenting health issues are unrelated to their excess weight) before considering possibilities two (unrelated but aggravated) and three (causal). Advise to lose weight has no role in situation 1, can be considered in situation 2, and is clearly the best course of action for situation 3.