Tag: Obesity

Denmark’s Fat Tax

The Danish government’s now infamous “fat tax” has caused an international uproar, applauded by public health advocates on the one hand and dismissed on the other as nanny-state social engineering gone berserk.

I see it as one country’s attempt to stave off rising obesity rates, and its associated medical conditions, when other options seem less feasible. But the policies appear confusing. Why Denmark of all places? Why particular foods? Will such taxes really change eating behavior? And aren’t there better ways to halt or reverse rising rates of diet-related chronic disease?

Before getting to these questions, let’s look at what Denmark has done. In 2009, its government announced a major tax overhaul aimed at cushioning the shock of the global economic crisis, promoting renewable energy, protecting the environment, discouraging climate change, and improving health – all while maintaining revenues, of course.

The tax reforms make it more expensive to produce products likely to harm the environment and to consume products potentially harmful to health, specifically tobacco, ice cream, chocolate, candy, sugar-sweetened soft drinks, and foods containing saturated fats.

Some of these taxes took effect last July. The current fuss is over the introduction this month of a tax on foods containing at least 2.3 per cent saturated fat, a category that includes margarine, salad and cooking oils, animal fats, and dairy products, but not – thanks to effective lobbying from the dairy industry – fluid milk.

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What About Personal Responsibility?

A reader writes to ask: What about personal responsibility? “I see no movement afoot to require the public to accept or meet norms of behavior that would reduce the need for medical treatment—smoking, excess drinking, use of drugs, over weight, etc. What ever happened to ‘You reap what you sow’?”

Good question. I answered:

Thanks for writing. This is a common concern. It’s often expressed something like, “Why are we paying for all this healthcare for people who won’t take care of themselves?” This seems, at first blush, an obvious question with an obvious answer. After all, as I constantly point out in what you read, vast amounts of healthcare dollars are spent to correct what we might call “self-inflicted lifestyle damage.” Why should the rest of us pay for that? Where is the responsibility?

On inspection, the question is more complex and the answer is not so obvious. Let me try to parse it out. I can think of four related aspects of the question.

1. Their health affects ours. My wife and I had a lovely dinner at a very nice French restaurant on the waterfront here in Sausalito last night. The staff was all French, with those endearing accents. The busboy who set our table, poured the water, took away dirty plates and all that, was Mexican. I talked with him a bit in Spanish about the nice weather. I have no way of knowing his immigration status. Now, if I had my ‘druthers, just as a customer, would I rather that he have good access to healthcare and healthcare advice, be up on his flu vaccinations, be aware of the importance of washing his hands frequently, or would I rather he be a seething mass of communicable disease, compounded by ignorance?


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The McVictim Syndrome Could Kill Us

Call it the McVictim syndrome. Too many pundits, public health experts and politicians are working overtime to find scapegoats for America’s obesity epidemic.

In his latest book, former FDA Commissioner David A. Kessler argues that modern food is addictive. In it, he recounts how he was once helpless to stop himself from eating a cookie. In a paper in this month’s Journal of Health Economics, University of Illinois researchers join a long list of analysts who blame urban sprawl for obesity. In November, former Carter administration advisor Amitai Etzioni argued that it’s so hard for Americans to keep weight off that adults should simply give up and focus attention on the young instead.

The peak of the trend: A recently released Ohio study, using mice, suggests “fine-particulate air pollution” could be causing a rise in obesity rates.

How long before we’re told that the devil made us eat it?

The McVictim syndrome spins a convenient — and unhealthy — narrative on America’s emerging preventable disease crisis. McVictimization teaches Americans to think that obesity is someone else’s fault — and therefore, someone else’s problem to solve.

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The trifecta: Reform idiocy, Hospital CEOs and the Obesity Problem

It’s rare that you get such a delicious health care story combining human frailty, blindness and multiple stereotypes, but Julie Rovner of NPR found it. In fact I literally thought she’d been set up but she confirmed to me that it was true and put me in touch with the CMS spokesman who confirmed it. So remember, this really happened.—Matthew

An interim hospital CEO in Ohio Valley Medical Center, in West Virginia “found out” “advanced intelligence” from “word of mouth” sources in Washington DC that the “High Commissioners of the Healthcare Reform Bill” were going deny Medicare payments  to any hospital of which than 5% of employees were 25% overweight.

This rumor prompted the said CEO to panic. Now before I tell you what he did, let me tell you a little of his story. To quote the CEO as he tells it:

I am five feet, 10 inches tall. The guidelines (he’s referring to standard BMI guidelines) suggest that I should weigh between 151 and 163 for my medium frame. If you add 25 percent to the upper limit, I would need to be no heavier than 204 pounds. I currently weigh 272 pounds, down from 335. I would have three years to lose 68 pounds

That is indeed some challenge. Not to mention that the hospital is in West Virginia (albeit the northern sliver between Ohio & Pennsylvania) where the obesity rate is among the nations highest—there’s a reason that Jamie Oliver took his childhood obesity crusade there. In fact Ohio County, WV’s obesity rate is 32% according to the rather fun County Sin Rankings site. And as obesity tends to mean a BMI of roughly 25% more than the outer band of the guidelines, it’s a fair bet that somewhere close to 32% of the workforce is obese. So getting that number down to 5% would be a major struggle.

The interim CEO also wanted to promote not only his own weight loss story but the laudable activities of his hospital’s dietitians and its weight-loss programs. Here’s his counsel to hospital employees.

I strongly urge you to take advantage of the programs OVMC and EORH are currently offering employees who are battling with excess weight. Mary Velez is doing a fabulous job with Weight Watchers programs, and in addition, I have also been offering a program known as “Diet and Fitness for Love.”

And who could be against that advice?

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Heavy Words

The post that forever doomed the world to have my writing forced onto them was one called Shame, in which I describe my frustration with how society stigmatizes people who are obese.  It was picked up by the NY TImes Health Blog and got a good conversation about the subject going on the blog-o-sphere.

A recent article in EverythingHealth (via Better Health) got me thinking again about the subject of society’s response to the “obesity epidemic.”  The article discusses a recent study that showed…well, read it for yourself:

Talk about a cruel trick of nature!  A study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and published in JAMA shows that physical activity prevents weight gain in middle-aged and older women ONLY IF THEY ARE ALREADY AT IDEAL WEIGHT. Did you read that?  It means that the recommended guidelines advocating 150 minutes of exercise a week isn’t sufficient to prevent weight gain in most middle age women.

The author, Dr. Toni Brayer, ends the post by saying:

So what are we to think about this study?  First, caloric restriction is the only way to maintain or lose weight.  The health benefits of exercise have been proven over and over in thousands of studies and that is not in dispute.  But weight control demands caloric restriction, period.

I am sorry about these results. Truly I am.

Hearing the frustration from my patients (male and female), and struggling with weight myself, I have to say that this is not really that surprising.  Losing weight is not easy.  Let me say that again: losing weight is not easy.  There are lots of reasons it is difficult to lose weight, from the food-oriented culture to a person’s own metabolism.  There are emotional and addictive aspects to obesity as well.  This study puts scientific evidence behind the hardness of weight loss.Continue reading…

A new campaign against childhood obesity

There are intractable long-term problems and then there’s America’s waistlines. And in particular there’s the issue of childhood obesity. I shudder to think what we can do about it, and recently interviewed Alan Greene on the topic of changing eating habits for children.

Earlier this week First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off a campaign to try to end childhood obesity within a generation. The campaign is called “Let’s Move

One of the point people behind the campaign is Kaiser Permanente’s SVP of Community Outreach Raymond Baxter. KP has joined with several foundations (including the Nemours, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, The California Endowment, the WK Kellogg Foundation, and Alliance for a Healthier Generation) and they’re working on an extremely ambitious program called the Partnership for a Healthier America.

How ambitious? And can it be done? I spoke to Raymond yesterday to find out. Here’s the interview

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Not Just Personal Responsibility


Off and on during the current health reform debate, politicians, leaders and pundits have raised the issue personal responsibility. For instance, take these comments from the John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods:

“…many of our health-care problems are self-inflicted: two-thirds of Americans are now overweight and one-third are obese. Most of the diseases that kill us and account for about 70% of all health-care spending—heart disease, cancer, stroke, diabetes and obesity—are mostly preventable through proper diet, exercise, not smoking, minimal alcohol consumption and other healthy lifestyle choices.”

That is a refrain many of us who think and discuss American medicine are used to hearing.  In fact, I wrote an article over a year ago in Salon emphasizing the role of individuals in taking care of their own health.  That being said, though, I think (especially after having read my readers’ comments about that piece) the view doesn’t take into account the socio-economic factors that pressure many Americans into chronic illness.

Let’s look at obesity as an example that illustrates this.  Almost one-third of adults and children are obese, a problem that costs us $100 billion dollars a year.  In California, where I live, our State Controller estimates that “the economic cost to California of adults who are obese, overweight and physically inactive is equivalent to more than a third of the state’s total budget.”

Those are the facts, and as Mackey so obviously says, a proper diet and exercise can help to prevent obesity.  But for many, that’s not so easy.

To illustrate what I mean, consider the following experiment:  a while ago, I decided to take a trip to the grocery store with $40. I spent half of that money on fresh, healthy foods and the other half on processed foods.  I took my grocery bags home and counted up the calories per dollar that I spent on both types of foods.  For the healthier choices, I got 140 Calories per dollar; for the processed foods, I got 370 Calories per dollar.

That little experiment has real-world implications when you think about middle class families, with two (or one or zero given our current unemployment numbers) working parents, trying to make ends meet.  Even people living paycheck to paycheck know what food choices are good for them. But if you’re one of the millions of families just scraping by, popping a couple of DiGiorno pizzas in the over for dinner is cheap and calorie-laden enough to soothe your hunger pangs. It also leaves one less battle to fight with your kids between getting them to finish their schoolwork and getting them ready for bed.

Add the consequences of my little experiment to some other factors, like the lack of access to fresh foods in poorer communities (Mr. Mackey, do you have any stores in low-income areas?), or a lack of safe places to get out and exercise, and you can see that prevention has as much to do with class, income, and communities as it does with personal responsibility.

Dr. Rahul Parikh is a Pediatrician in the San Francisco Bay Area and a frequent contributor to and THCB. Dr. Parikh practices with the Walnut Creek Medical Center and Kasier Permanente.

Mississippi, Alabama – and the winner is!

Fat-people A study was released last month by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation titled: “F is for Fat 2009”.  The essence of the report once again raised the apparent hopelessness of our national “condition” – we are a “supersized” nation.  The report ranked the neck in neck race between four states for the distinction of having the highest rate of obesity in the nation.  While the competition was intense, the distinction for the fifth year in a row was awarded to Mississippi, (with honorable mentions to Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee.) From “sea to shining sea” these states are certainly not alone in this national epidemic.  We seem to have lost all rational thought when it comes to the food levels we consume and the eroding levels of activity we collectively engage in.

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Thomas Kuhn, Health Care Reform and Vascular Disease

The puzzle of improving care and reducing costs in American medicine and in vascular conditions (that is, diseases associated with blood vessel metabolism) in particular – these are responsible for 60 percent of all cost – has been in part due to the nature of medicine itself.  Physicians are at their core scientists. Our undergraduate degrees are in the scientific disciplines of biology, chemistry, physics. We have been educated in the culture of science and that is the environment in which we practice.

Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions perfectly describes a central problem in cardiovascular diseases.  A scientific community cannot practice without a set of core beliefs. These central constructs are, in Kuhn’s terms, the foundation of the “educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice.” The student’s instruction is “rigorous and rigid,” with the purpose of ensuring that these beliefs are firmly fixed in the student’s mind.

Scientists go to great lengths to defend the idea that they know what the world is like. It should come as no surprise then that “normal science,” – that is, the framework to explain the world used by the scientists who lead the current paradigm – will often suppress novelties that undermine its foundations.

So research often is not about discovering the unknown, but rather “a strenuous and devoted attempt to force nature into the conceptual boxes supplied by professional education.” A generally-accepted paradigm, essential to effective scientific investigation, requires “some implicit body of intertwined theoretical and methodological belief that permits selection, evaluation and criticism.” That paradigm, in turn, forms the basis of a new profession or specialty, like Interventional Cardiology, and from this follows the establishment of journals, societies, and a special place in the medical academic structure.  The articles in those journals are intended for professional colleagues who share the the field’s knowledge and who are the only ones capable of fully understanding them.

A shift in the accepted scientific construct occurs when research aimed at further developing that formulation of the evidence runs into an anomaly — a fact that does not fit the paradigm and cannot be explained away. When anomalies pop up, they typically are not welcome and may be ignored. The current paradigm’s scientists may make little or no effort to formulate a new theory to explain the phenomenon. They are also likely to be intolerant of practitioners who try to do so.

All the same, the discovery of anomaly is the stimulus that leads to a new paradigm. The failure of  existing beliefs and rules is the necessary but insufficient platform for the development of new scientific and practice structure.

The leaders of an entrenched paradigm strongly resist alternate systems of science and practice. Only in  crisis can that resistance be overcome. No better example of this can be found than the current situation in the treatment of cardiovascular and arterial disease.


The fixed blockage is the dominant paradigm today for both the science and practice of cardiovascular and arterial disease management. In other words, it is viewed as a plumbing problem. This paradigm has persisted because it made so much sense.

Angina is a historical diagnosis – particularly in a man.  Just talk to the patient and you can make the diagnosis. If a man walks and gets chest pain that is relieved by rest, he has angina. Almost all of those men have a blockage of 70% or greater.

If the cardiologist does a catheterization he will demonstrate the blockage.  If he opens the blockage with a stent the pain will go away.  But many men with angina go on to have heart attacks – it is high risk.  So it is no surprise that blockage became the dominant scientific paradigm. To this day, virtually the entirety of the science, practice, and financing are organized around this idea: Heart attacks are caused by a progressive blockage. If we open that blockage before it becomes complete, we will save the patient.

Now the anomaly. In 1988, WC Little and his colleagues at Wake Forest performed a study “to help determine if coronary angiography can predict the site of a future coronary occlusion.” If the plumbing model were correct and a progressive blockage of the artery caused myocardial infarction, the findings on coronary angiography should predict the site of heart attack. It did not.

Little and his colleagues studied 42 consecutive patient records of patients who had had coronary angiography before and up to a month after having a heart attack. In 19 of 29 (66%) patients, the artery that occluded subsequently had less than a 50% occlusion on the first angiogram. In 28 of 29 (97%) the stenosis (or narrowing of the vessel) was less than 70%, even though it takes a stenosis of 70% or greater to justify angioplasty with stenting.

Little concluded

“Because it was difficult to predict the site of subsequent occlusion in our patients from the initial coronary angiogram, coronary bypass surgery or angioplasty appropriately directed only at the angiographically significant lesions initially present in almost all of our patients would not have been effective in preventing the majority of infarctions…instead effective therapy to prevent myocardial infarction may need to be directed at the entire coronary tree…”

And, in keeping with Kuhn’s description of the scientific revolution, the best arterial disease scientists quickly developed a new paradigm that provides a much better explanation of the mechanism of heart attack and other vascular events. Within 7 years of the first anomaly, Erling Falk, Prediman K Shah and Valentin Fuster, leading academic cardiologists, summarized four studies that came to the same conclusion as Little. Only 14% of heart attacks occur in an artery that was 70% blocked on the previous catheterization. Only 14% of heart attacks occurred in an artery with enough obstruction to cause angina and justify bypass surgery or stenting.  Falk and his colleagues described the new paradigm very simply:

“plaque disruption with superimposed thrombosis (obstructive clot) is the main cause of the acute coronary syndromes of unstable angina, myocardial infarction, and sudden death.”

Peter Libby is Chief of Cardiology at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital, one of Harvard’s teaching hospitals. One of the world’s foremost authorities on the science of heart attack and plaque rupture, he quite literally “wrote the book” on the topic. In the volume of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, the standard reference text for the discipline, that sits on my desk, Peter Libby wrote the chapter entitled The Pathogenesis of Atherosclerosis.

In 1995, the same year as the Falk article, Libby wrote a piece called “The Molecular Basis of the Acute Coronary Syndromes.”

“Bypass surgery or transluminal angioplasty (dilation of the artery and then, propping it open with stents) provide rational and often effective therapies for these fixed, high-grade stenoses (blockages).  However, these treatments do not address the non-stenotic but vulnerable plaque (which may rupture and suddenly block the artery with clot).  It is of interest in this regard that despite the well-accepted benefit of coronary bypass surgery on anginal symptoms, this treatment aimed at severe stenoses does not prevent myocardial infarction. To reduce the risk of acute myocardial infarction, one must stabilize lesions to prevent this disruptions, particularly the less stenotic plaque.”

In other words, heart attack is not caused by a gradual narrowing of the artery, but rather is the result of sudden cholesterol plaque rupture with subsequent clot formation, which blocks off the artery and cuts off blood flow.

Today, 14 years later, we can dramatically stabilize plaque and reduce plaque progression by smoking cessation and reduction of cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, and blood glucose.  We can prevent clot formation with aspirin and other medications.

The scientific revolution in vascular disease is 20 years old and the new paradigm firmly in place and supported by the very best vascular scientists. Still, the practice paradigm persists as if the science never changed.

Just last year, I heard a brilliant talk by Valentin Fuster, one of the co-authors on the Falk article. Afterward I asked him what it would take to move the practice paradigm forward. He responded that it would take the time required to replace current practitioners wi
th the next generation.

Can we afford to wait for that?  Several years ago, I heard Dr Libby speak at a national meeting of the American Society of Hypertension. I later asked him, “Dr Libby, I read your article from 1995, saying that bypass and stenting do not prevent heart attack, do you still hold that view.”  He became very animated and enthusiastic and said he was convinced that the new science was valid and required action to move it forward.

The science has become irrefutable.  Yet the defenders of the old science still carry the day.  I fear that medical scientists will not move this forward and it will require changes in payment and support for research coming from outside the professional community to bring the latest science to patients.

We have to recognize the suppression of anomalies and new paradigms in medicine. Only then can we develop mechanisms that can bring the latest evidence-based science to patients.

Bill Bestermann is Medical Director, Integrated Health Services at Holston Medical Group in Kingsport, TN.

The treadmill-desk mashup goes primetime

Could walking at a tortoise pace all day long in the office keep you thin or help you lose weight?

Many people seem to think so and have built themselves treadmill desks — basically a treadmill with a raised platform for their computer and phone. Moving at less than 1 mile per hour all day long helps them burn between 250 and 350 calories a day. Don’t believe me? See this New York Times article. (Illustration by Eric Lister, from Gelf)

A couple of years ago, when I wrote a story about people using treadmill desks for the online magazine Gelf, the phenomenon was just beginning to surface on personal blogs. It’s clearly taken off. (David, the Gelf editor who assigned me the story, now has is own treadmill desk.)

There’s actually a lot of science behind the idea of work-walking, which comes mostly from the Mayo Clinic. Dr. James Levine and his team published research in Science back in 2005 showing that thin people tend to fidget and move around more often than overweight people, thus burning more calories. They call it NEAT— Non-exercise Activity Thermogenesis.

Two years ago, Levine, an endocrinologist, told me that he wanted this idea to go beyond a few individuals. He wanted corporations to embrace the idea, or at least promote practices that get employees moving more.

We’re a fat nation, and our evolutionary biology combined with our current environments practically guarantee we remain so unless we adopt some creative interventions. This definitely is a step in that direction.


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