Weight loss a losing battle without team approach

Publicly funded weight-loss clinics, armed with experts who can address everything from behaviour modification to proper nutrition, would help solve Canada’s obesity epidemic, according to a York University study.

“With 59 per cent of the Canadian public overweight, and 23 per cent medically designated as obese, we need this type of drastic intervention. Telling people to ‘just lose weight’ clearly isn’t working. We need a team approach that can offer support from many different angles, and it needs to be available free of cost,” says study lead author Dr. Sean Wharton, adjunct professor in York’s Faculty of Health and director of the Wharton Medical Clinic (WMC) in Hamilton.

Left: Dr. Sean Wharton

Researchers examined data from more than 2,700 patients of WMC, one of several publicly funded clinics in Canada offering multidisciplinary support from physicians, behavioural therapists, exercise specialists and nutritionists.

In the first three months of treatment, a third of participants lost five per cent or more of their total body weight – a percentage obesity researchers consider “clinically significant”, as weight losses of this magnitude result in significant health benefits. By six months, nearly half the participants had achieved this five per cent reduction.

“This research provides a real-life example of how we can manage obesity within our public health-care system,” says Wharton. “Clearly, a team approach, where all aspects of weight loss are addressed, is much better than trying to go it alone.”

The study also reports that patients’ progress improved as a result of dropping in to the clinic to weigh themselves. “It creates an unintimidating environment and increases their contact with the clinic, which serves to reinforce the behavioural changes,” says Wharton.

Study co-author Jennifer Kuk, a professor in York’s Department of Kinesiology in the Faculty of Health, notes that commercial medical weight-loss programs should not be the only option for those who need intensive support.

Right: Jennifer Kuk

“The success rate for obese individuals trying to manage their weight on their own is very poor, as individuals cannot maintain their weight loss without support. In fact, over 95 per cent of people will return to their original weight within a couple years of losing weight if they try on their own. Currently, there is very little data showing how effective commercial weight-loss services are for losing weight. That is why this research – showing that medical management works – is so important,” says Kuk.

“Obesity is a health issue that should be managed by physicians, and it is important that weight-management services are integrated into our public health-care system and be available to everyone.”

The study was published in this month’s issue of Canadian Family Physician; it is co-authored by Sarah Vanderlie, staff at WMC; Dr. Arya M. Sharma, professor at University of Alberta; and Saaqshi Sharma, MA from York University.