Weight and See

 

Obesity and dietary issues have been seen as major contributors to diabetes and cardiovascular health for some time now. No longer regarded as outward manifestations of status or wealth in most societies, they are now often subjects of disparagement, and those carrying extra weight frequently stigmatized and derided. As if the very fact of being overweight was an act of moral depravity, or at the very least, a manifestation of weakness. Self-neglect.

Smoking –especially in North America- suffered a similar fall from grace when it became evident that it was a cause of major health problems. But it is much easier to hide a smoking habit than an overweight or frankly obese body. And whereas public measures to stigmatize smoking and outline the health risks may have some effect on smoking behaviours or smoking persistence, they seem to be counterproductive in successfully encouraging exercise for weight loss according to a large study from Britain: http://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/7/3/e014592

This was a long term study starting in 2002 of 5480 participants of both sexes, all at or over 50 years of age, and carried out by Dr. Sarah Jackson from University College London. ‘In summary, these results provide evidence that weight discrimination may be associated with lower participation in regular physical activity and higher rates of sedentary behaviour. Through this mechanism, weight discrimination may be implicated in the perpetuation of weight gain, onset of obesity related comorbidities and even premature mortality.’

The BBC News also reported a perhaps more easily assimilable summary of the study: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-39191100. The point being, evidently, that shaming or drawing attention to the weight a person is carrying is less likely to get them to exercise than a welcoming and supportive attitude. And environment -‘Exercising when you are overweight can be daunting, and the fat-shaming attitudes of others do not help.’

I suppose this study is much like carrying coal to Newcastle, but nonetheless it is important to hold a mirror to societal attitudes and prejudices. It’s often not so much that we mean to denigrate people who hold different values, or who do not seem to espouse the image we find attractive but rather that we hold ourselves apart. Withholding approval can be as devastating as active discrimination and, at least in this case, seldom leads to positive changes.

Unfortunately the problem of excessive weight sometimes slips by in a gynaecology office as well –noticed, but unmentioned- because of fear of upsetting the patient. Occasionally, an opportunity will present itself, however. One has to be alert –and sensitive.

Janina was a new patient to me. I first saw her in the waiting room sitting in the corner seat which was partially obscured by a large, leafy Areca palm. Her head and face were further hidden behind a magazine whose pages never seemed to turn. A large lady by any estimation, she attempted to camouflage it as best she could with an extra-large, loose fitting brightly patterned sweat shirt and bulky jeans. The effect was really quite beautiful –and so was Janina when she finally lowered the magazine. Her large, brown eyes were captive birds that fluttered delicately behind the bars of exquisite eyelashes. Her face was soft and her smile, although timid and infrequently offered, was captivating. She wore her hair long and auburn waves flowed slowly and gently over her shoulders like water on a beach whenever she moved.

She made a show of being nice in the waiting room, but I could tell that she was uncomfortable as she followed behind me to my office. She closed the door quietly behind her but before she sat she moved the chair as far away from the desk as the room allowed.

I smiled at her in an attempt to put her at her ease, but she had already dropped her eyes onto her lap and refused to retrieve them.

“Dr. Blackstock says you are having some problems with your birth control pills,” I said, when it became evident that she was not going to volunteer any information.

She sat perfectly still, her hands clasped motionlessly where her eyes still lay. Finally, she took a long, slow breath, looked at me, then slowly nodded her head. It was a sad movement, and for a moment, I wondered if she was going to break into tears. But she remained silent.

“What kind of problem are you having, Janina?” I asked, after another sepulchral moment.

She sighed again, but her face changed. “Isn’t it obvious, doctor?”

I raised an eyebrow to indicate that it wasn’t.

“Ever since I started on the pill, I’ve continued to gain weight,” she started. “I was never this heavy before…” She paused briefly to let that sink in. “Never…” She let her eyes drift around the room for a moment, finally settling them on a terra cotta statuette of a seated woman with a begging bowl that I’d placed on a little oak stand in the corner. “I don’t want to end up like her,” she said, pointing at the woman. She sent her eyes back to perch briefly on my face. “But even she isn’t as fat as me…”

As the words sank slowly into silence, a tear began to run down her now quivering cheek. I rose from my desk and walked across the room to hand her some tissues. She seemed to appreciate the gesture and her face softened for a moment. In fact, she used the opportunity to examine me as I walked back to my desk.

“You have no idea how people look at a fat person like me…” she finally volunteered and then her eyes focused on a wooden figurine on my desk behind a plant; it was a woman holding a child and peering out as if she were hiding. “I feel like that woman,” she said, nodding at the plant with her eyes.

I must have let a worried expression escape onto my face, because Janina seemed to focus on it. “It’s a different world when you’re fat, doctor. That’s all people see…”

I sighed. I couldn’t help it; she seemed so sad. “I see beauty,” I said –it just escaped from my lips. I hadn’t planned it…

Suddenly she smiled, and her hair danced once again over her shoulders. She straightened herself on the chair, and then with a gentle shrug stood and moved it closer to the desk.

 

 

 

 

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Nudging Childhood Obesity

When I was a kid, obesity was not the norm. Admittedly, this was a long time ago, and no doubt I only remember brief and highly selective snippets of the time –modified, no doubt, to serve whatever demands are required in the present. But in these unexpurgated, sketches, I have memories of labeling the occasional child in the playground as ‘fat’. Whoever it was stood out from the rest –ex gregis in the true etymological sense of the word ‘egregious’- and so through the insouciance of childhood, were forever condemned to wear the epithet like a poorly fitting sweater.

Maybe we just didn’t have enough to eat in those halcyon days of early Winnipeg; maybe the winters were too severe and the necessary clothes too heavy to allow the accumulation of excessive girth. But let’s face it, normal is what we see around us. It is parochial. It is the statistics of one box. And yet, isn’t that how we judge: by what we know? If I am obese, and my child is too, then what’s the problem? And if all his friends, and all my friends are large, then how am I to adjudicate another norm? Thin is aberrant, not fat.

I came across an interesting article in Forbes magazine reporting about a study –several studies, in fact- demonstrating the inability of parents to judge whether or not their child was overweight: http://www.forbes.com/sites/alicegwalton/2015/03/30/can-you-tell-if-your-child-is-overweight-most-parents-cant-study-finds/

This is worrisome, to say the least -unless of course you change the definition of what weight is normal… But no matter the norm, health risks for diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease generally increase with increasing BMI (Body Mass Index -which is the weight in kilograms divided by the square of the height in meters: kg/m2).

And it is difficult to rationalize the increasing prevalence of corpulence in the population as an evolutionary process. It’s hard to understand how plumpness would be of any survival benefit, or why it would be selected for in a gene pool. There exist islands of controversy in this, of course: http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-28191865  But I think most analyses would suggest that obesity (BMI >30 -at least in North American population studies) adversely influences health and life span. So it would make sense to attempt to correct the issue as early as possible.

As an obstetrician, I am drawn to the idea that management of pregnancy and birth weight are important. I was intrigued by a prediction model I saw reported in the BBC from 2012 suggesting the risks for subsequent obesity of a child could be predicted at birth with about 80% accuracy: http://www.bbc.com/news/health-20509577  I haven’t seen much about this recently, so I don’t know how well it has stood the test of scientific scrutiny, but at least it was an interesting thesis. A start.

Recently, the Canadian Task Force on Preventive Health published an update on childhood obesity guidelines: http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/child-obesity-charts-open-door-to-treatment-1.3014832  It contains the usual admonitions against junk food and physical inactivity, of course, but advocates some innovative strategies, I think. For example, because the circadian rhythms of teenagers have been found to differ from the adults who are teaching them, it recommended starting classes later in the morning and suggested breaks in each class. And walking to school, where feasible, as part of the exercise regime… Dr. Brian Goldman, host of CBC’s ‘White Coat, Black Art’ program, while agreeing with the guidelines, detected some downsides to the recommendations however: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/whitecoat/blog/the-cure-for-childhood-obesity-parents-will-hate-1.3014981

The contributing factors to obesity –let alone childhood obesity- are legion: genetics, dietary habits, social milieu, parental influences, environmental conditions, Media, socioeconomic status, and peer group expectations, to name a few. None are solely responsible, but unless there are some counteracting forces –incentives- all are important. Behaviour, habits, and expectations are learned phenomena and it may be something as simple as imitation of parents or friends that starts it off and then sustains it.

When faced with uncountable opponents and overwhelming odds, how can Society possibly succeed in changing things? Well, simplistically, it needs to change attitudes. Change what the majority considers acceptable. Change the mythos. It is slowly changing the acceptability of smoking as a norm; even the legitimacy of drinking and driving is under scrutiny –not only in the courts but also in the minds of drinkers. Some things are just not seen as cool nowadays.

But, given the importance of preventing childhood obesity for the health and well-being of future generations and given the relative lack of success so far, I think we need a new (old?) approach. There is a freshly-named, although age-old practice, termed ‘Nudge Theory’. It is a euphemism that my mother would have simply called manipulation because, although cleverly disguised, that’s really what it is. Wikipedia has succinct explanation: Nudge theory (or Nudge) is a concept in behavioral science, political theory and economics which argues that positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance can influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals, at least as effectively – if not more effectively – than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. Here are two introductions –take your choice:  http://www-2.rotman.utoronto.ca/facbios/file/GuidetoNudging-Rotman-Mar2013.ashx.pdf or http://www.businessballs.com/nudge-theory.htm

Education, and early identification and treatment of those at risk of becoming obese are obviously important and desirable, but I think we need something more. Something with a proven track record, albeit in different fields. Maybe ad campaigns and directed manipulation –sorry, nudging– would be valuable adjuncts. We are media savvy nowadays, and used as a tool for change, it seems ideal. As long as we are certain of our goals, and the science is correct, I think it is an ethically acceptable approach, and one with great potential.

I did, though, run across a light-hearted, but nonetheless cautionary article about nudging in the Toronto Globe and Mail: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/im-an-adult-stop-nudging-me/article20925672/

However, we have to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal. My mother’s manipulation was unsubtle and in my face; nudging is not. If we are going to be successful in stopping the steadily increasing tide of obesity, we need to revise expectations, and change what we accept as normal. We have to alter folkways and mores –in other words the rules that society uses to guide behavior. Nudge them, I suppose…

We need the courage to try novel approaches. There is a quote by Erasmus that is germane: A nail is driven out by another nail. Habit is overcome by habit. Okay, so let’s change them. Nudge them. No! I hate the verbal evasion. Let’s mold them.