Obesity: A chronic disease, not a choice

Alberta Diabetes Institute’s seminar series marking 100 years of insulin begins with an examination of obesity’s complexity.

Stepheny Zani - 22 March 2021

Obesity is a chronic disease that affects millions of adult Canadians, not to mention the increasing number of childhood/teenage obesity cases. Characterized by excessive adipose tissue (fat tissue) mass, obesity is a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, fatty liver disease, sleep apnea, cancer and other conditions. In addition, obesity is linked with mental-health issues such as anxiety and depression. A better understanding about obesity and its root causes is needed to decrease stigma around obesity and to improve its management.

On March 9, the Alberta Diabetes Institute (ADI) started a series of webinars in celebration of the 100th anniversary of insulin discovery. The first topic, Obesity, was discussed by experts and ADI members Arya Sharma, professor in the Division of Endocrinology and Metabolism, and Andrea Haqq, professor in the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology. Both are actively engaged in finding ways to improve obesity management and treatment.

Here are the main takeaways from this webinar:

Obesity is a complex chronic disease

The underlying cause of obesity is not as simple as many believe. Far from being a condition controlled by individual choices and caused only by environmental factors, obesity involves multiple biological systems that are in a constant fight to protect us from losing body weight. Therefore, an interaction between genetic/biological and environmental factors account for obesity development.

Diet and exercise may not be enough to manage certain cases of obesity

Although lifestyle modifications such as eating healthy and being physically active help in improving health, managing such a complex disease as obesity involves much more. Many times, pharmacological therapy or bariatric surgery is necessary to maintain persistent weight loss. In addition, treatment should include patient education about obesity, self-monitoring, goal setting and regular followups.

Stigma of pediatric obesity

The stigma of pediatric obesity increases the burden carried by children with obesity, leading to psychosocial and eating behaviour impairment, causing detrimental effects in adult life. Reduced stigma can be achieved by education and changes in public health policies recognizing that obesity is a chronic complex disease and not a choice.

Treatment for genetic obesity

It is known that genetics influences obesity and genetic disorders such as Bardet-Biedl syndrome or Alström syndrome are linked to hyperphagia (uncontrolled excessive eating) and childhood obesity. Andrea Haqq is part of the University of Alberta team involved in testing setmelanotide, a drug that has been showing promising results in treating individuals with genetic obesity.

Next in the ADI seminar series is a discussion about diabetes in pregnancy, Tuesday, March 23, 2-3 p.m.