There is probably no more misunderstood medical condition than obesity, and so in honor of World Obesity Day, here are four FACTS about obesity.
Fact #1: Obesity is a chronic disease
Many people believe that people living with obesity or excess weight just have an issue with willpower– that if they just worked harder at eating less and moving more, they would lose weight and keep it off. It turns out that this is FAR from the case.
As Toronto-based obesity specialist Dr. David Macklin puts it, “There’s a ton of great medical evidence to suggest that struggling with weight is a true genetically conferred complex, environmentally influenced medical condition.”
Why is that the case? It has to do with how our bodies evolved tens of thousands of years ago when food wasn’t so readily available. Let’s say I start a diet and begin losing weight; unfortunately, my body thinks that that is because food is suddenly very scarce and it starts fighting back, trying to prevent additional weight loss and working to go back to my original weight. It lowers my metabolism, so that I burn fewer calories, and charges up hormones to make me hungrier, at the same time weakening the hormones that make me feel full. This is my body’s way of protecting itself- it really thinks I’m in danger. Even the most motivated dieters are working against their own biology, and ultimately almost all dieters gain the weight back, often plus a little more. It’s these mechanisms that make obesity a chronic disease, “just like asthma, just like depression, just like Parkinson’s” as Dr. Laura Reardon, an obesity expert in Halifax says.
Fact #2: Genetics play a big role
“What we weigh is a result of what we eat and how much we exercise” is a very commonly held belief. Actually, the truth is that genetics play a big role in what we weigh, “determining somewhere close to 80% of our size and shape,” according to Dr. Macklin.
He goes on to point out that the numbers are very similar for height, but says that “you don’t really see people blaming themselves or calling themselves out as lesser just because they haven’t reached the height that they really feel they should have been, yet the genetic influence is the same, between our body size and height.”
We tend to view height as something that’s determined for us by our genes, while believing that our weight is under our control, and it’s more complex than that.
Fact #3: For most people, diet and exercise alone just isn’t enough…
For those who believe that the formula for managing weight is simple, that all we have to do is eat less and move more, here’s the reality. For most people, diet and exercise alone just isn’t enough to help them reach and maintain a healthier weight. Part of this has to do with the nature of “diets” as we classically think about them.
Vancouver obesity expert Dr. Ali Zentner puts it this way: “The challenge with diets is they don’t work. Diets have a beginning, they have a middle, and they have an end. The challenge with a diet is it advocates restriction. It advocates denial, deprivation. It advocates that white-knuckled, kind of ‘just work harder and hate this’ for a period of time. But when it comes to obesity, you have to do this forever.”
Making sustainable changes towards a healthier lifestyle is important, but when it’s not enough, we need to try something else in addition…
Fact #4: There ARE treatments to help anyone reach a healthier weight
Here’s the good news– there are other treatments available, other solutions besides diets and exercise, or using more willpower. Medical expert Dr. Sean Wharton puts it this way: “There are resources to help you to keep that weight off and it’s not willpower.You failed with willpower over and over again. So it’s got to be something different, such as bariatric surgery, medications, or cognitive behavioral therapy. So there’s hope. There’s an answer, there’s an answer out there.”
And the first step towards finding the answer that IS out there is going to talk to your doctor about getting medical treatment for your weight. It might involve getting referred to a specialist or exploring some of the medical treatments available with your family physician; seeing a healthcare professional will help you find a individualized plan that’s right for you and your situation. Do your research, and know that as Ottawa specialist Dr. Judy Shiau says, “It is truly of value then to seek medical attention, whether it’s your primary care physician or whether you get referred to a specialty clinic for weight management. There’s nothing wrong with getting that professional help.”
And if you’re looking for more evidence that “struggling with weight is not a flaw in character” as Dr. Macklin puts it, look no further than this amazing video of people with obesity talking about their experiences living in larger bodies. It’s inspiring and humbling, reminding us that judgment and stigma towards those living with obesity is not the answer. Here’s to knowing the facts and having more understanding…
If you would like to learn more about the firsthand experience of living with obesity, click here.
To find a weight management physician in the United States near you, click here.
To find a weight management physician in Canada near you, click here.