Obesity

Among the American public and even some policymakers, it has become conventional wisdom that poverty, a dearth of supermarkets, reduced leisure time, and insufficient exercise are key forces behind the U.S. obesity epidemic.

Conventional wisdom is an unreliable guide, however, and in this case, much of it is wrong: The epidemic actually coincides with a falling share of income spent on food, wider availability of fruits and vegetables, increased leisure time, and more exercise among the general population.

Of course, there are differences between individuals, but we need to explain the change in obesity over time, not why people differ. Some differences in body mass index (BMI) are associated with genetic makeup. But genes haven’t changed in the past 50 years, so differences between individuals don’t explain trends.

Data from a new analysis of this issue indicates that the same argument applies to other characteristics, such as geography. Southern hospitality’s heavy food hasn’t caused the obesity epidemic any more than an active Colorado lifestyle has prevented it. There are differences at a given point in time, but the trend is the same, as shown in the figure below.

Percentage of Population with a BMI Over 25 in California, Colorado, and Mississippi

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics.

Increases in obesity have also been surprisingly similar by level of education and by racial/ethnic group, as the following figures show.

Increase in Average BMI Nationwide, by Highest Education Level Achieved

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SOURCE: Calculations based on Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance Survey; smooth trend adjusted for 2010 demographics. Continue reading “What’s Behind the Obesity Epidemic? Easily Accessible Food, and Lots of It”

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cheeseburger

Consider that for the last year or so, we have been treated a deluge of entreaties to reduce our salt intake, with the American Heart Association going so far as to claim that daily sodium intake should not exceed 1,500 mg. This puts it at odds with the Institute of Medicine, and now European researchers whose data indicates that the healthy range for sodium intake appears to be much higher.

Our conversation about  sodium, much like advice about purportedly evil saturated fats and supposedly beneficial polyunsaturated fats, exemplifies a national obsession with believing eating more or less of a one or a small number of nutrients is the path to nutritional nirvana.

A few weeks back, an international team of scientists did their level best to feed this sensationalistic beast by producing what’s become known since then as the meat-and-cheese study, because it damned consumption of animal proteins.

Continue reading “Cheeseburger Please, and Make It a Double”

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Al’s son once complained to Al’s Aunt Tillie about an overbearing supervisor.  Aunt Tillie suggested that he try to work under a different supervisor.  Tillie was one of those people – and we all know them – who could be counted on to inadvertently provide punchlines when needed.  Conversely, Al is one of those people – and we all know them – who can’t resist setting up those punchlines.  So I lamented that this suggestion may not work because, “Aunt Tillie, it’s a sobering fact that 50% of all supervisors are below average.”

Tillie replied, “I blame our educational system for that.”

Likewise, we may need to blame our educational system for Keas’ new poll on workplace stress.  To begin with, the lead paragraph from Keas — which like many other companies is “the market leader” in wellness – “reveals” that “4 in 10 employees experience above-average stress.”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – (Apr 2, 2014) – Keas (www.keas.com), the market leader in employer health and engagement programs, today released new survey data, revealing four in ten employees experience above average levels of job-related stress. Keas is bringing attention to these findings to kick off Stress Awareness Month, and is also providing additional insight and tips to bring greater awareness to the role of stress in the workplace and its impact on employee health.

Wouldn’t that mean some other employees – mathematically, also 6 in 10 – must be experiencing average or below-average levels of stress?   It would seem like mathematically that would have to be the case.   However, the Keas poll also “reveals” that while some employees are average in stress, no employee is below-average – a true paradox.  Hence Keas’ selfless reasons for publishing this poll:  All employees being either average or above average in the stress department means we have a major stress epidemic on our hands.  This perhaps explains why Keas is “bringing attention to these findings.”

In a further paradox, Keas also uses the words “average” and “normal” as synonyms, even though they are often antonyms:  All of us want our children to be normal but who amongst us wants their children to be average?

Continue reading “Keas Poll on Workplace Stress and Disease Burden Provides an Education”

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Amid the rancorous debates over the Affordable Care Act, one provision deserves to be getting serious discussion.

It’s a provision that allows employers to increase the amount that they may fine their employees for “lifestyle” conditions, such as being overweight or having high blood pressure or high cholesterol.

Almost 37% of Americans are overweight or obese. The supposed goal is to use financial penalties to reduce obesity, the health costs of which exceed $200 billion per year. But this idea, while well intended, will not help Americans suffering from obesity, a medically defined disease and disability. In fact, it will likely make their situation worse.

For years, the country’s “wellness” industry has offered health-enhancement and obesity-reduction programs to corporations, from gym memberships to dietary counseling. For obesity, this approach has not worked. Research on these programs shows that they have not significantly reduced weight or cholesterol levels, or improved any other health outcomes.

Even the most successful programs, such as Weight Watchers, achieve an average two-year weight loss of only about 3% for their members— and even that tiny weight loss often returns later.

Continue reading “An Obamacare Fine on Overweight Americans: Discriminatory and Ineffective”

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With the exception of rare and particularly bleak days, I don’t tend to think of myself as a moron — nor, as far as I can tell, do those who know me well and love me. I will hazard a guess that neither you nor those who love you think of you as a moron, either.

So let’s be bold, proffer one another the mutual benefit of any disparate doubts, and declare: We are not morons!

I propose, then, that this be the year we stop ingesting as if we were. Still with me? Let’s find out.

On the matter of morons, I think they are very much the exception rather than the rule. I have met a lot of people over my years. I’ve taken care of many patients over decades and come to know their intimate thoughts as the privilege of doctoring uniquely allows and requires. So I know firsthand that most of us are endowed with our fair portion of both sense and sensitivity. Formal education, the color of a collar, degrees and credentials don’t distinguish us nearly as much as some might like to think. In most ways that matter, most people have that practical brand of folksy wisdom and intelligence that serve most handily on any given day.

And yet, as a matter of routine we are fed a steady diet of both food and food for thought as if we were abject morons. That’s how it’s served to us — but of course, only we get to decide whether or not to swallow such insalubrious slop. It’s a New Year, and time for new chances. Here’s our chance to stop the slop.

On the matter of common sense, I have been driven many times over the span of my career to lament the fact that it isn’t nearly common enough. But as just noted, I think it really is — in most areas. We apply it routinely to finances, home care, our careers and our families. We just turn it off when captivating promises about effortless weight loss, miraculous vitality, or age reversal waft our way. The result, of course, tends to be that even as we get fatter, sicker and older, we get poorer — spending our sensibly earned money on a senseless parade of false promises.

Continue reading “Please Don’t Feed the Morons!!”

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The ever-blurring line between the practice of medicine and the business of profiting from unhealthy lifestyles was crossed again Wednesday, as Aetna announced a collaboration with two pharmaceutical companies to pitch their prescription weight loss drugs to selected Aetna members.

This announcement crosses multiple lines, not just one. First, no insurer has ever announced that it would openly direct a specific class of members to use particular proprietary drugs. Disease management (DM) programs rarely recommend specific drugs, and certainly in the exceptionally rare instances when they do, the recommendations are not specific brand-name drugs (in this case, Arena’s Belviq and Vivus’s Qsymia).

Instead, DM focuses on improving compliance with existing drug regimens, and DM firms encourage members “talk to their doctor” about changing therapies. While DM companies shy away from directing patients to specific products, physicians and pharmacists have discretion to discuss the full range of covered generic and brand products with patients, in order to optimize therapy and close algorithm-identified care gaps.

Second, there are no generally accepted care algorithms (other than those created by the manufacturers of those products) for these two drugs in the treatment of obesity. So there is no “gap” to fill. If there were an accepted protocol, these drugs might be blockbusters but instead Belviq’s recent quarterly sales were an anemic $4.8-million, “well below even reduced Wall Street expectations,” while QSymia sales are “flailing” at $6.4-million for the same period.

Obese people and their physicians seem to be avoiding these drugs in droves. Regardless of what Aetna and the manufacturers believe about their effectiveness, or whatever promotional deal they’ve cut, market reaction is telling a different story, and unfortunately for Aetna, Vivus, and Arena we live in a market economy.

Continue reading “Dr. Aetna Will See You Now”

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Hi. I’m fat. I’m what most people call an in-betweenie—I have a heavy build, I wear plus sizes, my stomach poofs out, I have folds of fat along my back, I have chubby arms and legs. I can still buy clothes off the rack at a lot of stores, though.

Don’t rush to tell me I’m not ‘that kind’ of fattie or you’re ‘not talking about [me]‘ when you’re going on about how much you worry for fat people, though. We all know that you’re thinking of me, that when you think of fat people, my double chin comes to mind, my wobbling upper arms, my thighs broad in my jeans, my big ass. I’m fat. It’s okay. You can say it. I don’t have a problem with it.

I have a lot of issues with my body, but my size isn’t really one of them. It is what it is. The reasons I’m fat are complicated and not really your business. And yeah, I am unhealthy, and the reasons for that aren’t your business either, although I know you want to rush to assume that I’m unhealthy because I’m fat.

I don’t have an obligation to be healthy, actually, and I don’t have an obligation to rush to assure you that I’m a ‘good fatty’ with great cholesterol and good scores on other health indicators allegedly related to weight. I don’t have an obligation to tell you that fat isn’t correlated with health because I shouldn’t have to justify the existence of fat people by informing you that you don’t understand how fat bodies work, and you’re not familiar with the latest studies on fatness, morbidity and mortality, health indicators, and social trends.

Continue reading “Do You Care About My Health, Or Just Think I’m Gross? Be Honest.”

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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 cholesteroldietary 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…”

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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”

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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”

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Contributing Editor

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