Are We Shortchanging Patients With Obesity?

Richard M. Plotzker, MD


November 05, 2020

Every Wednesday evening after supper, I record in a marble notebook some anthropomorphic measurements: my weight taken first thing Monday morning and my waist circumference. I also add how I did with exercise since the previous week's entry and some comments about sleep, energy, and nutrition.

My personal log now comprises dozens of pages. To my surprise, the first entry was 5 years ago to the month. The earlier entries were far from weekly and contained a lot of narrative on how my food restriction scheme that month was being violated.

Looking just at the numbers, I did about as well as a control group participant in any medical study of diet modification. Until just a few months ago, there was no trend in either weight or waist circumference over those 5 years, including 2 years of retirement. But it wasn't for lack of trying. Keeping the journal for as long as I have — and recently, as consistently as I have — suggests serious intent but inadequate execution of the same principles I offered patients, who rarely did much better. But recent studies suggest that perhaps quite a few could.

Are We Underestimating Our Patients' Potential?

A recent abstract from the European and International Congress on Obesity suggests that the impressions clinicians get from our office encounters may leave us underestimating the potential for our patients to lose enough weight to move them from one level of risk to another.

Using a national database of primary care visits, the investigators isolated about 550,000 records. Of these, about 60,000 (11%) had records showing weight reductions of 10%-25% (mean, 13%) over at least 4 years. Weight loss was by intent rather than from illness. The remaining individuals maintained their weight within 5% of the first measurement for the duration of the study.

Participants with stable body weight were compared with the successful weight reducers. This analysis showed that the risk for type 2 diabetes, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea, hypertension, and dyslipidemia all measurably declined in weight reducers. This held true whether the patient's baseline BMI showed modest or severe obesity. Patients with the highest BMI at enrollment actually reduced their risks for hypertension and dyslipidemia below population norms.

This study raises tantalizing, as yet unanswered questions: How did the successful 11% achieve their weight loss goals? Was it via a weight loss program, bariatric surgery, dietitian consult, or with no external assistance?

And of great significance to clinicians: What happened to the people who achieved 5%-10% weight reduction, as that is a more typical outcome of diabetes prevention trials or studies of weight loss medications? Were they excluded from the study because they did not lose enough weight to achieve the unequivocal health benefit?

Because the data came from an enormous database, the weight management strategies leading to success or failure — what we really need to know to nudge our own patients into the favorable categories — remain hidden.

The Advantage of Intensive Interventions

Some answers emerged from a recently reported study in The New England Journal of Medicine comparing supervised diet and lifestyle adjustments (treatment group) with the less intense oversight typically offered by primary care clinicians (usual-care group).

The treatment group not only received the intensive lifestyle intervention, which focused on reduced caloric intake and increased physical activity, but also participated in mandated training sessions on how to best use the resources provided by the study. Much of the care was delegated by physicians to "coaches" who focused on nutrition, exercise, and behavioral health, including supermarket strategy.

Nearly a quarter of the participants in the intensive intervention group achieved the 10% weight reduction needed to change health risk in a meaningful way. A similar proportion lost less than 10% of their body weight, and about half did not have a notable weight change. Peak weight loss at 6 months averaged 17 lb, and 9.6 lb at 2 years. While this may not seem very impressive considering the extensive resources utilized, there were those who experienced an extraordinary health upgrade not otherwise available, short of bariatric surgery.

What Does This Mean for Us?

Both studies indicate that even under the best-controlled, resource-replete circumstances, the rate of failure to achieve desired progress is very high. But there is a success rate.

The likelihood of success is difficult to interpret from the European data, as it compared only those with major weight loss and those with weight stability, excluding patients with less robust loss or weight gain. The controlled study, however, holds forth an alluring opportunity benefiting a quarter of the targeted participants and even about 5% of the controls who realized that they were being observed.

We also learn that supervision requires a lot more than having a well-meaning but not very well-trained physician ask a patient to log measurements and food intake. Health coaches seem to make the impact.

Failure rates of 50% have a way of dampening enthusiasm, but it may be best to approach the scourge of obesity by offering treatment to everyone with the expectation that not all will experience greatly enhanced quality of life and longevity. Not everyone will benefit, but these two studies confirm that we do have an underutilized capacity to help more people benefit than we currently do.

Richard M. Plotzker, MD, is a retired endocrinologist with 40 years of experience treating patients in both the private practice and hospital settings. He has been a Medscape contributor since 2012.

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