Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving

A dietitian’s take on the new Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines

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Here are my thoughts on the new Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines (written as I read each chapter):

Reducing Weight Bias in Obesity Management, Practice and Policy

I was really pleased that they put this chapter first and I really didn’t find anything to object to in it. I was especially pleased to see the recommendation that weight not be a target for behaviour change, both on a population and individual level, and that other indicators be selected for assessing the effectiveness of population health interventions.

Epidemiology of Adult Obesity

This chapter discusses the prevalence of obesity in Canada among different age groups and changes in obesity rates over the past ten years. A definition for obesity is also finally provided:

Obesity is a chronic disease characterized by the presence of excessive and/or dysfunctional adipose tissue that impairs health and wellbeing. Obesity is a complex disease in both its etiology and pathophysiology.12 In epidemiological research, obesity is often determined using the body mass index (BMI), calculated as weight in kilograms divided by height in metres squared (kg/m2).

One thing that bothers me about this framing is the assumption that obesity is a disease in and of itself. I also don’t feel that enough emphasis was placed on the fact that BMI is not intended to be used at an individual level. This despite the fact that nearly every doctor (and many other healthcare professionals) uses it as such. There is disappointingly no mention of the significant limitations to BMI; i.e. that it is not appropriate to use with populations other than white adult men up to about the age of 50.

Essentially, what I get from this chapter is that “obesity” is a major “problem” in Canada but there is no real accurate way to measure it. So, call me crazy, but perhaps if there’s no good way to measure it “obesity” in and of itself is not a true disease or health concern. Perhaps instead, we should be focusing on tangible issues.

The Science of Obesity

A little bit more about BMI at the start of this chapter: “BMI is a fairly reliable anthropometric measurement to stratify obesity-related health risks at the population level.” I think this statement is debatable given the significant limitations of BMI. I truly think that we need to just let go of BMI altogether. Just throw it away. BMI is like the partner who constantly mistreats and gaslights you but because you’ve been together for so long you don’t want to “waste” all that time and energy you invested in the relationship so you stay with them even though that’s only going to prolong your misery. Just dump it already. Just because you don’t have a better option lined-up doesn’t mean you should forge ahead with this complete dumpster fire.

Then there’s this: “The increased availability of processed, affordable and effectively marketed food, abundance of sugar-sweetened beverages, economic growth, behavioural changes and rapid urbanization in low- and middle-income countries are some of the key drivers that promote overconsumption of food.” Sorry, what? Didn’t we just establish that “obesity” is complicated? And yet here we are boiling it down to people eating too much “junk” food. Sigh.

The chapter then goes on to discuss the biology and physiology of “obesity”. Even though previously establishing that BMI is only appropriate at a population level, there is still use of it for individual classification. There is also mention of a percentage of individuals “with obesity” who are metabolically healthy. Another problem, in my mind, of assuming “obesity” is a disease in and of itself. Essentially, you have people who have no health concerns but are labelling them as diseased solely on the basis of the size of their bodies. Didn’t we just talk about the harm of stigma? How is it not stigmatizing to say someone has a disease just because their body is classified as a certain size (based on a flawed measurement)? Why can’t we just focus on known health concerns (such as heart disease) and leave “obesity” out of the discussion entirely.

The chapter concludes by saying that, “Obesity, or excess adiposity, is the result of an imbalance between energy consumption and energy expenditure by an individual.” Boiling the “complex” “disease” of “obesity” (sorry for all the quotation marks!) down to eating more calories than you burn off which is an oversimplification and just further encourages the belief that fat people simply need to get more exercise, which I hope was not the intended message of the authors but nevertheless is what’s implied.

Prevention and Harm Reduction of Obesity (Clinical Prevention)

Don’t be fooled by the title of this chapter. It is not about reducing the harm caused by healthcare professionals when treating “obesity”. It is about preventing “obesity” in patients. I found this statement particularly alarming: “pregnancy and the postnatal period may be particularly important periods for targeted primary weight gain prevention.” People’s bodies go through HUGE changes during pregnancy, and postpartum and it’s NORMAL for bodies to be permanently altered by the process. There is already enough stress and pressure on someone during pregnancy and as a new parent. We absolutely do not need to be adding to the pressure during that time by shaming people for gaining too much weight during a pregnancy or pushing them to lose weight rapidly after giving birth.

I’ve written about it before, but it bears mentioning again that we as a society (and especially as healthcare professionals) do people, especially women, a huge disservice by promoting the message that we should remain one weight throughout adulthood. It is actually normal and perfectly healthy to gain weight as we age, particularly during menopause, and this weight may actually be protective against illness in older adults.

One more thing that I am horrified by in this chapter is the suggestion of encouraging adolescents to self-weigh in an effort to prevent obesity. This is a recipe for creating eating disorders. We should not be pushing this narrative of measuring self-worth on a scale to youth. Rather we should be promoting self-confidence and encouraging them to embrace and respect differences in body shapes and sizes. Promote healthy choices to youth, not bathroom scales.

Enabling Participation in Activities of Daily Living for People Living with Obesity

This chapter is all about how doctors should provide advice to patients classified as having “obesity” on how to perform activities of daily living, cleaning skin folds, and avoiding falls. Which I find a little presumptuous and cringeworthy. I know that I would be offended if a doctor told me, unprompted, how to wash my own body.

The authors even state: “There are significant gaps in knowledge about what it is like to live with obesity in the context of participating in day to day activities including self-care, leisure and life roles.” Here’s a novel idea: how about we allow patients to state their concerns to their doctors and then let doctors provide solicited advice.

Assessment of People Living with Obesity

All the recommendations for healthcare providers in this section (save for one) are graded level D. I don’t know about others, but I am not comfortable moving forward with such low quality evidence.

I appreciate the author’s emphasis on avoiding stigmatizing patients. However, I question whether it is possible to do this when labelling individuals as having a disease on the basis of the size of their bodies. Also, I once again question the recommendation that healthcare providers assess BMI when it was earlier established that this is not an appropriate measure on an individual basis. Do we really want to continue to use a deeply flawed tool just because we don’t have something better? Perhaps we should focus on actual lab work and patient concerns rather than something we know is potentially harmful.

The Role of Mental Health in Obesity Management 

I do think that it’s vitally important to discuss mental health when we’re discussing “obesity”. However, I’m disappointed that this chapter implies that people classified as having “obesity” may have binge eating disorder. It is possible for people with larger bodies to suffer from anorexia and bulimia, and really all types of eating disorders. They are not the sole domain of people with smaller bodies and failure to recognize this increases the risk of harm. I would have also liked to see more connection between this chapter and the chapter on weight stigma. Many of the ill-effects of “obesity” may actually be attributable to weight stigma.

Medical Nutrition Therapy in Obesity Management

I don’t have much to say about this chapter. I might also just be getting tired of reading. I appreciate that the authors state that there is little evidence of calorie restricted diets being beneficial and mentioning that dietitians can provide support for patients.

Physical Activity in Obesity Management

I’m actually surprised that there is supposedly high quality evidence to support exercise for achieving “reductions in abdominal visceral fat” (Grade A!) and losing small amounts of weight and maintaining weight loss (Grade B). The vast majority of research that I’ve seen has shown that exercise is not effective at producing long-term weight loss in most people. Of course, the authors of this chapter also state that physical activity can be helpful in managing a number of health conditions and is beneficial even when not accompanied by weight loss. This is the messaging that I think is best. We should be focussing on being physically active for overall well-being. Otherwise people see it as “work” and a means to an end and it all too often is abandoned.

Weight Management over the Reproductive Years for Adult Women Living with Obesity 

I wasn’t going to bother with the remaining sections (and this is out of order) because they address management of “obesity” and I feel like it’s kind of pointless for me to pass judgement on them when I’ve already established that I don’t believe “obesity” is a disease to be treated. However, as a relatively new mom I couldn’t resist taking a peek at the chapter on reproductive years. And I had a bit of a wtf moment when I read the following: “Primary care providers should offer behaviour change interventions, including both nutrition and physical activity, to adult women with obesity who are considering a pregnancy (Level 3, Grade C),7,8 who are pregnant (Level 2a, Grade B)915 and who are postpartum (Level 1a, Grade A)16 in order to achieve weight targets.” I mean, given that we’ve already determined that these are ineffective means for achieving weight loss why would they be recommended for that purpose? Also, can we please stop obsessing over women’s weight?? Why isn’t there a chapter on managing men’s weight through the reproductive years? Fuck the patriarchy.

Obesity Management and Indigenous Peoples

As a white person, I am uncomfortable commenting on this chapter. I don’t know the backgrounds of the authors but I hope that they are Indigenous. I was pleased to see the recommendation that healthcare providers educate themselves about Indigenous cultures. Also, that they recognize that health inequities exist. However, I’m question why this particular population was singled out and the discussion about Indigenous Peoples being disempowered felt a little condescending. I don’t think that we, as healthcare providers (or humans in general) should be making assumptions about people. Perhaps it would have been better to put a discussion about systemic oppression up-front with weight bias as there are many people who have been harmed by our white patriarchal systems. Perhaps it would be better to listen to patients about their experiences and concerns rather than making assumptions not matter how well-intended.

Final thoughts (aka TL;DR):

I get that the authors have devoted careers to working on treating and preventing obesity so it must be incredibly difficult to let that go. But we need to stop and ask who it’s serving to pathologize obesity, and as well-meaning as it may be if it is not actually causing more harm than good. We need to stop talking about “obesity” altogether and start focussing our time and energy on creating healthy supportive environments and systems. Let’s get a national school food policy, let’s dismantle the patriarchy, let’s implement a universal basic income, let’s eliminate poverty, let’s teach food literacy in schools, let’s create walkable communities, let’s encourage work-life balance.

Author: Diana

I'm a registered dietitian from Nova Scotia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. My goal is to help people relearn how to have a healthy relationship with food.

4 thoughts on “A dietitian’s take on the new Canadian Adult Obesity Clinical Practice Guidelines

  1. Well done Diana. I totally agree with you about BMI. I am also close to someone who has struggled with weight issues since puberty set in and I can tell you that person exercises 4-6 times a week and eats pretty healthy. Diets don’t work in the long run and fortunately she is coming to terms with her body and she seems pretty happy. Thanks for putting things in perspective . Lee

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  2. “Also, can we please stop obsessing over women’s weight?? Why isn’t there a chapter on managing men’s weight through the reproductive years? Fuck the patriarchy.”

    I can second this. How comes people don’t worry about semen quality in obese men just as much as they worry about women’s bodies?

    Still, I think there’s another problem with the words “Weight Management over the Reproductive Years for Adult Women Living with Obesity.” Why is there the implied expectation that “adult women” must “manage” their weight “over the reproductive years” for the sake of their pregnancies? As a person who is childfree and sterilized, I perceive as offensive the idea that all adult AFAB (assigned female at birth) people must do various things for their pregnancies, which many of them do not even want in the first place. (I am a trans man who has never wanted biological children, yet throughout my life people have told me to do all kinds of things for the sake of keeping my body healthy for the pregnancy I was supposed to inevitably have some day. For example, once I bought some beer and cigarettes in a shop, and the shop assistant told me that I shouldn’t drink and smoke for the sake of my children.)

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    • Yes! Thank you so much for this comment. After I scheduled this post I was actually thinking about these very issues while I was on a walk this morning. This chapter is so problematic for these reasons. There’s an implication that women only matter as long as they are potentially reproducing as well as the notable lack of recognition that cis-women who desire to have children are not the only women in existence.

      Thank you again for commenting!

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