A commentary in the current issue of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) suggests that saturated fat is not really so bad after all. The article has the media buzzing, with headlines exonerating saturated fat sprouting like mushrooms throughout cyberspace and print media alike. My most recent Google search of “saturated fat” limited to news retrieved 20,000 sites.
Since the new paper is just a commentary — one doc’s opinion — and not a new study, and since this opinion has been asserted many times already, I’m not sure I really get the reaction. But hey, I just work here. Let’s deal with it.
Is it, in fact, time to absolve saturated fat? No, it’s not. But then again, it was never time to demonize it in the first place. I will lay out my case that we are ill-served to think of saturated fat as either scapegoat or martyred saint.
1) Ancel Keys was never really wrong.
The case against saturated fat, its implication in the development of atherosclerosis, inflammation, and chronic diseases, notably heart disease, involves a vast expanse of research over many years by thousands of researchers around the world. But dealing with all of that in this column would be a terrible bother, so let’s just blame it all on Ancel Keys. Keys was certainly among the first to emphasize the association between saturated fat intake and heart disease.
The temptation to absolve saturated fat comes along with a temptation to indict Dr. Keys of crimes against dinner. But, Ancel Keys, while perhaps not quite right, was never really wrong.
Keys looked at rates of disease around the world and correctly noted that heart disease was more common in societies that ate more meat and dairy. His mistake may have been to look past that dietary pattern for the “active ingredient” in it, which led to the convictions of dietary cholesterol, saturated fat, and to a lesser extent overall dietary fat.
There’s much that could be said about this. Whole columns could be written about dietary cholesterol, dietary fat, and saturated fat and ways we went wrong. In fact, I — along with innumerable others — have written just such columns. Simply click the inserted links.
Continue reading “Sorry. Saturated Fat is Bad For You. Or More Accurately — It’s Complicated. Let’s Review the Evidence…”
Filed Under: Uncategorized
Tagged: Ancel Keys, British Medical Journal, David Katz, Nutrition, Obesity, saturated fat
Oct 25, 2013
A likely unanticipated consequence of the AMA’s decision to label obesity a disease, even though their own scientific council said not to, is that this might serve as the macguffin leading to furtherance of a protected class of people. This has serious implications not only for employment discrimination, but also for wellness programs, which often hinge vastly overblown claims of being able to help the obese who they almost universally label as “high risk” people.
Well, what if people who are obese, who are no doubt tired of being condescended to, first by wellness companies, and now by the AMA, decide that they are going to seek medical approval to opt out of wellness programs? A study recently published in the journal Translational Behavioral Medicine reports on a highly coercive, electronically monitored walking program for obese people: 17% opted not to participate and another 5% actually got their physician’s approval to opt out. The physician approval to opt out is key to any resistance strategy.
Under the final wellness rules issued by the federal government earlier this year, physician certification that it is medically unadvisable for an employee to participate in a wellness program creates a burden for the employer and wellness vendor. They must provide reasonable alternatives that do not disadvantage the employee in terms of either time or cost and that address the physician’s concerns.
Further, if the employee’s physician disagrees with offered alternative, the employer and wellness vendor must provide a second alternative. The coup de grace is that “adverse benefit determinations based on whether a participant or beneficiary is entitled to a reasonable alternative standard for a reward under a wellness program are considered to involve medical judgment and therefore are eligible for Federal external review.”
Targeting people based on body mass index (BMI) is an intellectually, morally, scientifically, and mathematically bankrupt approach. The AMA’s decision will actually help obese people and advocates for their dignified treatment in the workplace and society start to understand that they can refuse to opt in to these insulting programs and, simultaneously, be protected from penalties. Clearly, this is the opposite of what unsuspecting employers expect when vendors (and their own brokers) sell them these programs: more useless doctor visits, less leverage with penalties…and more employee disgruntlement. Not just the obese will be disgruntled, but also those who have to pay the penalties because their BMI is too high to get the reward but not high enough to get a doctor’s note.
Continue reading “Obesity and the AMA, Part Two”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Al Lewis, AMA, Body Mass Index (BMI), Obesity, prevention, Vik Khanna, Wellness
Sep 10, 2013
The wellness emphasis in the Affordable Care Act is built around the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) 2009 call to action about chronic disease: The Power to Prevent, the Call to Control. On the summary page we learn some shocking statistics:
“Chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths each year in the United States.”
“About 133 million Americans—nearly 1 in 2 adults—live with at least one chronic illness.”
“More than 75% of health care costs are due to chronic conditions.”
Shocking, that is, in how misleading or even false they are. Take the statement that “chronic diseases cause 7 in 10 deaths,” for example. We have to die of something. Would it be better to die of accidents? Suicides and homicides? Mercury poisoning? Infectious diseases? As compared to the alternatives, it is much easier to make the argument that the first statistic is a good thing rather than a bad thing.
The second statistic is a head-scratcher. Only 223 million Americans were old enough to drink in 2009, meaning that 60% of adults, not “nearly 1 in 2 adults,” live with at least one chronic illness — if their language is to be taken literally. Our suspicion is that their “133-million Americans” figure includes children, and the CDC meant to say “133-millon Americans, including nearly 1 in 2 adults, live with at least one chronic illness.” Sloppy wording is not uncommon at the CDC, as elsewhere they say almost 1 in 5 youth has a BMI > the 95th percentile, which of course is mathematically impossible.
More importantly, the second statistic begs the question, how are they defining “chronic disease” so broadly that half of us have at least one? Are they counting back pain? Tooth decay? Dandruff? Ring around the collar? “The facts,” as the CDC calls them, are only slightly less fatuous. For instance, the CDC counts “stroke” as a chronic disease. While likely preceded by chronic disease (such as hypertension or diabetes) and/or followed by a chronic ailment in its aftermath (such as hemiplegia or cardiac arrhythmias), a stroke itself is not a chronic disease no matter what the CDC says. Indeed it is hard to imagine a more acute medical event.
They also count obesity, which was only designated as a chronic disease by the American Medical Association in June–and even then many people don’t accept that definition. Cancer also receives this designation, even though most diagnosed cancers are anything but chronic – most diagnosed cancers either go into remission or cause death. “Chronic disease” implies a need for and response to ongoing therapy and vigilance. If cancer were a chronic disease, instead of sponsoring “races for the cure,” cancer advocacy groups would sponsor “races for the control and management.” And you never hear anybody say, “I have lung cancer but my doctor says we’re staying on top of it.”
Continue reading “The Biggest Urban Legend in Health Economics–and How It Drives Up Our Spending”
Filed Under: THCB
Tagged: Al Lewis, Body Mass Index (BMI), Cancer, CDC, chronic disease, Obesity, overdiagnosis, Overtreatment, prevention, Vik Khanna, Wellness
Aug 24, 2013
Penn State University is now embroiled in a national controversy over the ham-handed launch of its coercive and intrusive wellness program, which can cost recalcitrant employees as much as $1,200 per year for not joining. That ignominy of being the most distasteful and coercive program, however, belongs to Blue Care Network of Michigan, which recently published results from their “voluntary” walking program designed exclusively for their obese enrollees. The invitation to join was extended to enrollees with a body mass index (BMI, which is an unscientific, mathematically bereft proxy for health – see Keith Devlin’s excellent article ) of 30 or greater. The program was “voluntary” as long as you were okay with paying $2,000 in added insurance premiums if you did not volunteer.
Avoiding the $2,000 price tag came with its own cost in dignity and privacy. Enrollees agreed to either: 1) wear an electronic pedometer and connect it to their computer daily to document completion of at least 5,000 steps or, 2) join Weight Watchers or some other approved “weight cycling” program. This princely sum is not irrelevant to most families. In fact, it is almost exactly equal to per capita spending on food eaten at home in the US and about four percent of median US household income in 2011. So, in a household occupied by a single adult, this will almost buy your groceries for a year, meaning that is hard to refuse, and the less money you make the more likely that resistance will prove futile.
The BCN strategy legitimizes telling people who look a certain way that they should submit to online, electronic monitoring or pay more for their insurance than people who don’t look that way. Why would an obese person submit to this when it is entirely possible that he or she is fitter and more metabolically healthy than an normal weight unfit person who would never be condescended to this way?
More disturbing is the prospect that this is only the leading edge of life-invading monitoring by the wellness industry. It is easy to envision sleep monitoring because you have bags under your eyes. Or, what about wrist-worn breathalyzers to make sure you don’t go over the one or two drink limit, or sneak cigarettes after lying on your health risk appraisal that you don’t smoke? How much electronic surveillance would you be willing to undergo on the pure guesswork that it might save someone (i.e., your employer or your health plan) money?
Continue reading “What’s Science Got to Do With It?”
Filed Under: THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: Blue Cross Network Michigan, Body Mass Index (BMI), Intervention, Jon Robison, Obesity, The Affordable Care Act, Vik Khanna, Wellness
Aug 19, 2013
A controversial study published earlier this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that overweight people have significantly lower mortality risk than normal weight individuals, and slightly obese people have the same mortality risk as normal weight individuals.
This meta-analysis, headed by statistician Katherine Flegal, Ph.D., at the National Center for Health Statistics, looked at almost 100 studies that included 3 million people and over 270,000 deaths. They concluded that while overweight and slightly obese appears protective against early mortality, those with a body mass index (BMI) over 35 have a clear increase in risk of early death. The conclusions of this meta-analysis are consistent with other observations of lower mortality among overweight and moderately obese patients.
Many public health practitioners are concerned with the ways these findings are being presented to the public. Virginia Hughes in Nature explains “some public-health experts fear…that people could take that message as a general endorsement of weight gain.” Health practitioners are understandably in disagreement how best to translate these findings into policy, bringing up the utility of BMI in assessing risk in the first place.
Walter Willett, chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told National Public Radio that “this study is really a pile of rubbish, and no one should waste their time reading it.” He argues that weight and BMI remain only one measure of health risk, and that practitioners need to look at the individual’s habits and lifestyle taken as a whole.
Continue reading “A Second Look at the Link Between Obesity and Mortality”
Filed Under: THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: Body Mass Index (BMI), JAMA, Lua Wilkinson, Mortality, Obesity, public health, Wellness
Aug 9, 2013
Last week’s announcement by the American Medical Association’s (AMA’s) council on science and public health cheered me. It said that the AMA should not designate obesity a disease, because doing so was unlikely to improve health outcomes and because the most widely utilized obesity metric — the body mass index or BMI — was simplistic and flawed. It’s a reasonable and principled stance, which should have been the first clue that it was doomed.
The AMA’s board and delegates proceeded to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by ignoring their own scientific council and labeling obesity as a disease. To be clear, the decision is almost purely symbolic; it has no legal force or authority, but it does up the ante in the debate with insurers and employers over what care elements should be covered and reimbursed. In other words, this is about money. Obesity: the new ATM for the health care system.
I’m just curious about where physicians have been for the past, oh, thirty years. Since 1980, as Americans have morphed into the fattest culture in the history of Western civilization, physician supply per 100,000 population has increased about 50%. Per capita medical care spending has increased from roughly $1,100 to over $8,400. 1980 was also the last time that roughly half of US adults were normal weight. Now, only about a quarter of American adults have a normal BMI.
Were US physicians blindfolded as they encountered patients growing incrementally larger with each visit? Were they keeping their mouths shut about the obvious — gee, I really think you should get out for some walking and limit the snacks — because they were awaiting a chance to make more creative use of ICD and CPT codes?
Continue reading “Obesity and the AMA”
Filed Under: THCB, The Insider's Guide To Health Care
Tagged: AMA, Body Mass Index (BMI), chronic disease, Obesity, preventive health, Vik Khanna, Wellness
Jun 27, 2013
There is a certain irony in the nearly immediate juxtaposition of the rare introduction of a new FDA-approved drug for weight loss (Belviq) to the marketplace and the recognition of obesity as a “disease” by the AMA. A line from the movie Jerry Maguire comes to mind: “You complete me!” Drugs need diseases; diseases need drugs.
And that’s part of what has me completely worried. The notion that obesity is a disease will inevitably invite a reliance on pharmacotherapy and surgery to fix what is best addressed through improvements in the use of our feet and forks, and in our Farm Bill.
Why is the medicalization of obesity concerning? Cost is an obvious factor. If obesity is a disease, some 80 percent of adults in the U.S. have it or its precursor: overweight. Legions of kids have it as well. Do we all need pharmacotherapy, and if so, for life? We might be inclined to say no, but wouldn’t we then be leaving a “disease” untreated? Is that even ethical?
On the other hand, if we are thinking lifelong pharmacotherapy for all, is that really the solution to such problems as food deserts? We know that poverty and limited access to high quality food are associated with increased obesity rates. So do we skip right past concerns about access to produce and just make sure everyone has access to a pharmacy? Instead of helping people on SNAP find and afford broccoli, do we just pay for their Belviq and bariatric surgery?
If so, this, presumably, requires that everyone also have access to someone qualified to write a prescription or wield a scalpel in the first place, and insurance coverage to pay for it. We can’t expect people who can’t afford broccoli to buy their own Belviq, clearly.
There is, of course, some potential upside to the recognition of obesity as a disease. Diseases get respect in our society, unlike syndromes, which are all too readily blamed on the quirks of any given patient and other conditions attributed to aspects of character. Historically, obesity has been in that latter character, inviting castigation of willpower and personal responsibility and invocation of gluttony, sloth, or the combination. Respecting obesity as a disease is much better.
And, as a disease, obesity will warrant more consistent attention by health professionals, including doctors. This, in turn, may motivate more doctors to learn how to address this challenge constructively and compassionately.
But overall, I see more liabilities than benefits in designating obesity a disease. For starters, there is the simple fact that obesity, per se, isn’t a disease. Some people are healthy at almost any given BMI. BMI correlates with disease, certainly, but far from perfectly.
Continue reading “Is Obesity a Disease? I Vote No”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: AMA, David Katz, Obesity, Physicians, practice of medicine, prevention, public health
Jun 22, 2013
The Medicare Board of Trustees just released its latest report on the program’s finances and the results are terrifying. Despite a decline in health care costs, the Medicare Trust Fund will be bankrupt in 2026.
For the program to survive for future generations, innovation will be essential. The old medical paradigm of diagnosing and treating diseases must give way to a more holistic approach aimed at eliminating risk factors that lead to disease. The best place to start is by addressing the growing problem of adult obesity.
In the past 30 years, the percentage of American adults who are obese has doubled, driving a sharp rise in such chronic conditions as diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
The ramifications for health spending are significant. Annual health costs for obese individuals are more than $2,700 higher than for non-obese people. That adds up to about $190 billion every year. And many of these costs are borne by Medicare, which will spend a half-trillion dollars over the next decade on preventable hospital readmissions alone.
We cannot afford to wait until patients are on Medicare to fight obesity. Rather, we need to encourage weight control over the course of patients’ lives.
Fortunately, we now have an ideal opportunity to implement reforms. The new health insurance exchanges created under the Affordable Care Act can establish effective care coordination strategies to identify and treat chronic conditions earlier, addressing not just the immediate conditions but the underlying ones as well. Obesity is one of the most common. Medicare, in turn, can adopt these strategies, and the benefits for both patients and taxpayers will be substantial. Continue reading “Targeting Obesity With Health Care Reform”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB
Tagged: Kenneth Thorpe, Obesity, Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease, The Affordable Care Act, Tommy Thompson
Jun 17, 2013
As we look back over the past year and some of the amazing medical breakthroughs like wearable robotic devices, genomic sequencing and treatments like renal denervation that are improving people’s lives, it bears reflection on what else we could be doing better. Our world has changed more in the past century than in thousands of years of human history. We not only know more about our biology than ever before, but science and technology are unlocking the secrets of the very building blocks of our health. Somehow, in the midst of this incredible innovation, we’ve gotten fat, and not just a little. The result? Alarming rates of obesity and related chronic disease that threaten to crush us physically and financially.
But is it technology’s fault that we’ve become fat? A recent study by the Milken Institute that tied the amount an industrialized country spends on information and communication technologies directly to the obesity rates of its populations thinks so.
Most of us are guilty of a little overindulgence around the holidays but for many, overindulgence is a normal way of life. As economies transition to more sedentary, the physical movement that burned calories and kept us fit simply does not occur. Our lifestyles compound the issue — dual-income homes rely on the convenience of packaged meals, and our leisure activities have shifted to heavy “screen time” with movies, games and social media.
Continue reading “Is Technology Making Us Fat?”
Filed Under: Uncategorized
Tagged: Diabetes, mHealth, Microsoft, Neil Jordan, Obesity, prevention, Tech
May 22, 2013
A trio of groundbreaking publications on healthcare came out this April. They are my required reading list for CEOs. First is a study published in last week’s Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) by Eappen and colleagues (including among them Atul Gawande). The study found infections occurred in 5 percent of all surgeries in an unnamed southern hospital system. For U.S. hospitals, this is not an unusual rate of error — even though it is about 100 times higher than what most manufacturing plants would tolerate. No automaker would stay in business if 5 percent of their cars had a potentially fatal mechanical flaw.
If that’s not bad enough, the second finding is where we enter the realm of the absurd: according to the study, purchasers paid the hospital to make these errors. Medicare paid a bonus of more than $3000 for each one of the infections; Medicaid got a relative “bargain,” paying only $900 per infection. But the real chumps were the commercial purchasers (CEOs, that’s you). Employers and other purchasers paid $39,000 for each infection, twelve times as much as your government paid through Medicare. Most companies could create a good job with $39,000, but instead they paid a hospital for the privilege of infecting an employee. How many good jobs haven’t been created so businesses can pay for this waste?
Most employers are far more hard-nosed about managing their purchase of, say, office supplies than they are in purchasing health care — even though, unlike healthcare, paperclips never killed anyone and no stapler can singlehandedly sap a company’s quarterly profit margin. Yet, according to the Catalyst for Payment Reform, only about 11 percent of dollars purchasers paid to healthcare providers are tied in any way to quality. The results reflect this neglect of fundamental business principles for purchasing: Quality and safety problems remain rampant and unabated in health care, while employer health costs have doubled in a decade. Continue reading “How to Avoid Being a Chump For CEOs”
Filed Under: OP-ED, THCB, The Business of Health Care
Tagged: British Medical Journal, CEOs, Hospitals, JAMA, Leah Binder, Obesity, Quality, Safety, Wellness
May 9, 2013