Conference Coverage

‘If obesity were diabetes or cancer, how would you approach it?’



“When considering the challenges of obesity, ask yourself: ‘If it were diabetes, cancer, HIV, or Alzheimer’s, how would you discuss it, approach it, assess it, treat it?’” Lee M. Kaplan, MD, PhD, asked the audience of health care professionals during ObesityWeek®, the annual meeting of The Obesity Society.

“And then do it for obesity, using the full spectrum of tools at our disposal,” he advised.

This was the takeaway that Dr. Kaplan, director of the Obesity, Metabolism, and Nutrition Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital and associate professor, Harvard Medical School, Boston, left the audience with at the end of his lecture entitled, “What does the future of obesity care look like?”

Invited to summarize his main points, Dr. Kaplan told this news organization in an interview that practitioners caring for patients with obesity need to first “recognize that obesity is a disease” caused by dysfunction of the metabolic system that regulates body fat – in the same way immune dysregulation can lead to asthma.

Second, “we are finally developing noninvasive therapies that are more effective,” he noted, referring to the recently approved semaglutide, and even more potent weight-loss therapies that could be on the market within 3 years, so that weight-loss outcomes with pharmacotherapy are approaching those with bariatric surgery.

Third, it is important that patients with obesity get “broad and equitable access” to treatment, and health care practitioners need to be on the same page and have a “shared understanding” of which treatments are appropriate for individual patients, “just as we do for other diseases.”

Need for a shared understanding

“Dr. Kaplan really brought home the idea that we all need a shared understanding of what obesity is – and what it is not,” agreed symposium moderator Donna H. Ryan, MD, in an email.

“He underscored the biologic basis of obesity,” noted Dr. Ryan, professor emerita at Pennington Biomedical Research Center in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and associate editor-in-chief of Obesity, the official journal of The Obesity Society.

“It is a dysregulation of the body’s weight (especially adipose tissue) regulatory system,” she continued. “The body responds to powerful environmental pressures that produce excess energy balance, and we store that as fat and defend our highest fat mass. This makes obesity a disease, a chronic disease that requires a medical approach to reverse. It’s not a cosmetic problem, it’s a medical problem,” she emphasized.

There is so much misinformation out there about obesity, according to Dr. Ryan.

“People think it’s a lack of willpower, and even patients blame themselves for not being able to lose weight and keep it off. It’s not their fault! It’s biology.”

Although the supplement industry and fad diets falsely promise fast results, there is no magic diet, she continued.

“But we have made progress based on understanding the biologic basis of obesity and have new medications that offer real hope for patients.”

“With 42% of U.S. adults having a BMI that qualifies as obesity, we need a concerted and broad effort to address this problem, and that starts with everybody on the same page as to what obesity is ... a shared understanding of the biologic basis of obesity. It’s time to take obesity seriously,” she summarized, echoing Dr. Kaplan.


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