Routine Weight Counseling Urged for Women at Midlife

Diana Swift

August 02, 2022

Midlife women who are of normal weight or are overweight should routinely receive counseling aimed at limiting weight gain and preventing obesity and its associated health risks, a new clinical guideline states.

The recommendation, issued by the Women's Preventive Services Initiative (WPSI) of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), supports regular lifestyle counseling for women aged 40-60 years with normal or overweight body mass index of 18.5-29.9 kg/m2. Counseling could include individualized discussion of healthy eating and physical activity initiated by health professionals involved in preventive care.

Published online in Annals of Internal Medicine, the guideline addresses the prevalence and health burdens of obesity in U.S. women of middle age and seeks to reduce the known harms of obesity with an intervention of minimal anticipated harms. High BMI increases the risk for many chronic conditions including hypertension, dyslipidemia, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, and all-cause mortality.

The best way to counsel, however, remains unclear. "Although the optimal approach could not be discerned from existing trials, a range of interventions of varying duration, frequency, and intensity showed benefit with potential clinical significance," wrote the WPSI guideline panel, led by David P. Chelmow, MD, chair of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.

The guideline rests on a systematic literature review led by family doctor Amy G. Cantor, MD, MPH, of the Pacific Northwest Evidence-based Practice Center, at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, suggesting moderate reductions in weight could be achieved by offering advice to this age group.

The federally supported WPSI was launched by ACOG in 2016. The guideline fills a gap in current recommendations in that it targets a specific risk group and specifies individual counseling based on its effectiveness and applicability in primary care settings.

In another benefit of routine counseling, the panel stated, "Normalizing counseling about healthy diet and physical activity by providing it to all midlife women may also mitigate concerns about weight stigma resulting from only counseling women with obesity."

The panelists noted that during 2017-2018, the prevalence of obesity (BMI ≥ 30.0 kg/m2) was 43.3% among U.S. women aged 40-59 years, while the prevalence of severe obesity (BMI ≥ 40.0 kg/m2) was highest in this age group at 11.5%. "Midlife women gain weight at an average of approximately 1.5 pounds per year, which increases their risk for transitioning from normal or overweight to obese BMI," the panelists wrote.

The Review

Cantor's group analyzed seven randomized controlled trials (RCTs) published up to October 2021 from 12 publications involving 51,638 participants. Although the trials were largely small and heterogeneous, they suggested that counseling may result in modest differences in weight change without causing important harms.

Four RCTs showed significant favorable weight changes for counseling over no-counseling control groups, with a mean difference of 0.87 to 2.5 kg, whereas one trial of counseling and two trials of exercise showed no differences. One of two RCTs reported improved quality-of-life measures.

As for harms, while interventions did not increase measures of depression or stress in one trial, self-reported falls (37% vs. 29%, P < .001) and injuries (19% vs. 14%, P = .03) were more frequent with exercise counseling in one trial.

"More research is needed to determine optimal content, frequency, length, and number of sessions required and should include additional patient populations," Cantor and associates wrote.

In terms of limitations, the authors acknowledged that trials of behavioral interventions in maintaining or reducing weight in midlife women demonstrate small magnitudes of effect.

Offering a nonparticipant's perspective on the WPSI guideline for this news organization, JoAnn E. Manson, MD, DrPH, MACP, chief of the division of preventive medicine at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, said its message is of prime importance for women of middle age and it goes beyond concern about pounds lost or gained.

"Midlife and the transition to menopause are high-risk periods for women in terms of typical changes in body composition that increase the risk of adverse cardiometabolic outcomes," said Manson, professor of women's health at Harvard Medical School, Boston. "Counseling women should be a priority for physicians in clinical practice. And it's not just whether weight gain is reflected on the scales or not but whether there's an increase in central abdominal fat, a decrease in lean muscle mass, and an increase in adverse glucose tolerance."

It is essential for women to be vigilant at this time, she added, and their exercise regimens should include strength and resistance training to preserve lean muscle mass and boost metabolic rate. Manson's group has issued several statements stressing how important it is for clinicians to take decisive action on the counseling front and how they can do this in very little time during routine practice.

Also in full support of the guideline is Mary L. Rosser, MD, PhD, assistant professor of women's health in obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York. "Midlife is a wonderful opportunity to encourage patients to assess their overall health status and make changes to impact their future health. Women in middle age tend to experience weight gain due to a variety of factors including aging and lifestyle," said Rosser, who was not involved in the writing of the review or guideline.

While aging and genetics cannot be altered, behaviors can, and in her view, favorable behaviors would also include stress reduction and adequate sleep.

"The importance of reducing obesity with early intervention and prevention must focus on all women," Rosser said. "We must narrow the inequities gap in care especially for high-risk minority groups and underserved populations. This will reduce disease and death and provide women the gift of active living and feeling better."

The WPSI authors have made available a summary of the review and guideline for patients.

The systematic review and clinical guideline were funded by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration through ACOG. The authors of the guideline and the review authors disclosed no relevant financial conflicts of interest. Manson and Rosser disclosed no relevant competing interests with regard to their comments.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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