Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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

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.


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Lose the Weight Watchers

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Last year Weight Watchers rebranded as WW because they wanted to pretend that they were about healthy lifestyles and not just weight loss. This week they announced the release of their new weight loss app for kids (as young as eight!) and teens. They’re trying to frame it as “helping kids and teens build healthy habits” but when the central feature of the app is food tracking don’t be fooled; this is Weight Watchers points for kids and creating a “bad food” “good food” dichotomy is likely to do anything but help these kids build life-long healthy habits.

An eight year old tracking every morsel of food they eat with the sole aim of losing weight is pretty much the antithesis of a healthy habit. Rather than help kids develop healthy habits this app is far more likely to instil them with an unhealthy relationship with food and their bodies. And while I personally ascribe to the belief that weight is not indicative of health, I hope that all healthcare providers and parents can see why an app like this could be damaging to children whether or not they view “overweight” and “obesity” as a “problem”. Weight is not a modifiable behaviour and focusing on weight loss as an end goal doesn’t promote the adoption of healthy behaviours. Rather, it promotes restricted eating and quite probably disordered eating habits in order to attain that goal.

Given that very few adults successfully maintain intentional long-term weight loss, I find it baffling that WW claims that their new app is “evidence-based” and will somehow be more successful (if you are measuring success by pounds lost) in children and youth than similar programs have been in adults. It also makes me sad to see the quotes around “stopping arguments about food” so that parents and children get along better. Placing the responsibility for food choices in the hands of an app rather than working on fostering a healthy food environment at home may seem ideal but this doesn’t truly promote healthy behaviours. I know not everyone can afford to work with a registered dietitian (and not all RDs ascribe to the same school of thought when it comes to body weight); however, I recommend Ellyn Satter’s books which can be found at your public library if you want to help your child attain a healthy relationship with food.

It’s also important to keep in mind that WW is a for-profit business. They are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. They are doing this because there’s money to be made – one month use of the app is $69 USD. They’re doing this because a “fun” app is an easier sell to parents who are concerned about their children’s weight than working on the division of responsibility, role modelling healthy behaviours and positive relationships with food, and cooking and eating nutritious balanced meals together as a family. They’re doing this because weight bias is so rampant in our society that many people can think of few things worse than being fat and parents are desperate to save their children from that plight. I get that. Parents just want their children to be healthy. Unfortunately, an app that encourages a restrictive diet mentality is likely to achieve the opposite of health promotion.


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A bit about that working mums make kids fat study

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This article: The Impact of Maternal Employment on Children’s Weight: Evidence from the UK came out a couple of weeks ago and I was appalled. Essentially, the article is blaming working mothers for making their children fat. As if working mums don’t have enough guilt dished out to them already. As if there’s a simple causal relationship between obesity and maternal employment. And as if there isn’t already enough unhelpful fat-shaming going on in our society. I was going to blog about it but a number of other people already have so why reinvent the wheel. Instead, check-out these pieces:

Working Mothers Don’t Make Children Obese by Gid M-K; Health Nerd on Medium explains why the reporting on this study was all wrong.

Aiming the Obesity Blame Game at Working Moms by Ted Kyle on ConscienHealth reminds us that correlation is not causation.

A TL;DR thread from Sean Harrison breaking down the many limitations of the study.

If you’ve come across any other great criticisms of the research (and media surrounding it) please share in the comments. I would especially love to see some from a weight-neutral perspective as the majority of the criticism has been around the study methods and sexism but I think that sizeism is a major problem with the research as well.

 

 


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What obesity and homosexuality have in common

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A couple of weeks ago I was listening to an episode of Radiolab on which they shared an episode of the short podcast series Unerased titled: Dr Davison and the Gay Cure. They were talking about the former perception of homosexuality as a disorder and the rise of conversion therapy. As I was listening what they were saying really struck a chord with me. I found myself thinking “this is exactly how people are going to think about weight loss counselling one day”.

On the podcast, they were saying, essentially, it doesn’t matter if people come to us wanting to change. What does it actually mean to help them? “The problem that these people are asking us to solve is a problem we created. That we labeled as a problem.” Even if we could effect certain changes, there is the more important question as to whether we should… It makes no difference how successful the treatment is, it is immoral.” And I was like “YES, this exact same thing could be said about weight loss treatment!”

This belief in relation to homosexuality was considered to be fringe and most people weren’t in support of it initially. This parallels the Health at Every Size/body diversity/weight acceptance movement. There is a lot of push-back from people in the medical community and the general public when it’s suggested that weight is not a condition that needs to be treated. Just as with the acceptance of homosexuality as a normal state, there were a few outspoken pioneers leading the movement and with time, it became more accepted by the mainstream. I feel that this is beginning to happen now with weight. More of us RDs who were always taught that “overweight” and “obesity” are unhealthy are coming to realize that people can be healthy at many different sizes.

Of course, there are still hold-outs and there is still conversion therapy happening in some places. Similarly, there will likely continue to be hold-outs who believe that only thin people can be healthy and that BMI is indicative of health. However, I’m hopeful that we’re reaching a turning point and that one day the medical community will agree that weight is not a “problem” and that weight loss treatments are unethical.


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Can we take chocolate milk out of politics already?

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You would think that I wouldn’t have anything left to say about chocolate milk by now. I wish that you were right. I would have thought that I wouldn’t either until I read this article the other day about the school nutrition policy in New Brunswick and the current provincial election there. This uninformed inane quote from the leader of the PC party got me all riled up again:

“Brian Gallant is focused on taking chocolate milk away from our kids,” Higgs said in a press release. “I’d rather accomplish the same thing by giving our kids better access to organized sports activities and the character-building experience that come from participating in activities with peers.”

Higgs said in a press release that his government would scrap the nutrition policy entirely because, despite the importance of educating children about good nutrition, “we think helping them participate in activities with their peers is the goal – not legislating what’s on the menu.”

This is the sort of thing that makes me want to tear out my hair. It shows a complete lack of understanding of the issue at hand and sends the entirely wrong message to the public.

The first quote implies that 1. the issue at hand is obesity and 2. that we can compensate for whatever we eat through exercise. These are both patent falsehoods.

To address the first issue: the purpose of school nutrition policies is not to address childhood obesity. The purpose of school nutrition policies is to ensure that children are being provided with nutritious food when they’re at school. Schools should not be making money at the direct cost of the health of their students. In some cases, the only nutritious food that children receive may be when they’re at school. This has nothing to do with weight and everything to do with health, growth, and development.

To address the second issue: as much as we may all wish that it’s true, no amount of exercise can compensate for an unhealthy diet. Playing soccer is not somehow going to miraculously provide a child with vitamins and minerals and essential nutrients that are lacking from their diet. That’s just not how it works. As I’ve mentioned before, healthy eating and physical activity are not two sides of one coin, they are both essential components of a healthy lifestyle.

The message that the would-be premier is sending here is the widespread misconception that health is measured by the scale and that we can make-up for an unhealthy diet by exercising more. This is just not true.

Finally, to address the second quote: we know that education (insofar as that means telling people what to eat, giving them a copy of Canada’s Food Guide, and lecturing them about calories) doesn’t work. However, creating a supportive nutrition environment in which healthy eating is the norm, along with teaching food literacy, can teach children life-long healthy eating habits.