Supermarkets and drive-throughs are a 20th century invention. Food was not always year round, and as abundantly and easily available, as it is today in this country. Who has never swung by the fast food eatery around the corner? Who has never stopped at the supermarket in the neighborhood on the way back from work to quickly fetch a pizza for dinner – sugar drink included? Advertisement for food and beverages is omnipresent, in fact, relentlessly catching our eye. It usually promises more for less, more boiling down to calories and less to $. We are systematically brainwashed and incentivized to eat more of most often industrially prepared (and frequently poor quality) food.
So what? Well, we human beings, at some point, started out as hunters and gatherers. For many thousands of years we had to physically work hard and long days to access the calories necessary to sustain our and our loved one’s lives. Selection pressure gave those a survival advantage who were able to store nutritional energy during times of abundance of food and live off those stores in times when food became again a scarce resource, e.g. during the winter. It comes, therefore, as no surprise that the ability to store nutritional energy as fat has become deeply engrained in our blueprint.
But today, this blueprint is no longer a selection advantage, to the contrary. Together with the year-round over-abundance of food, and our ever more sedentary lifestyle, this blueprint lets us become fatter and fatter, and most frightening, at ever younger and younger ages. We are in the midst of a worldwide obesity epidemic. In Canada overall, about a third of the population is obese (BMI 30 or higher) and an additional fifth overweight (BMI 25-30). Manitoba is at the higher end of the prevalence spectrum; in our province, roughly a third of the population is overweight and over an additional third obese. In some, especially indigenous, communities overweight and obesity approach a prevalence of 80-90%. Thus, over half of Manitobans suffer from some degree of the metabolic syndrome and low grade chronic inflammatory state associated with being too fat that predispose them to develop various chronic diseases. And, to reiterate, this pertains not only to older adults, but increasingly affects our school-age children who risk developing all those obesity related issues in their twenties and thirties that we formerly saw around retirement age only. As a corollary, when I was working in Toronto, 30% of healthy young adults volunteering to become live liver donors had to be declined for a BMI above 30.
You bet this matters! Apart from affecting the lives of individuals and their families, the burden that the obesity epidemic throws on our health care system is enormous and increasing every year. Obesity predisposes to type 2 diabetes with all its consequences including vision loss, (peripheral) vascular disease, and renal failure, to ischemic heart disease and stroke, to sleep apnea syndrome with its impact on quality of life and productivity, to hip and knee osteoarthritis, to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease often progressing to cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma, to many other life-threatening cancers, and to anxiety disorders and depression – and this list is not complete.
And what are we doing? We spend a huge amount of our health care resources to treat the advanced stages of the aforementioned obesity related disorders. We are swamped with treating diabetes and its complications, we increase dialysis spots and perform kidney transplants, we increase capacity in acute stroke and coronary care programs, we build sleep centers, perform sleep studies and prescribe CPAP machines, we perform more and more hip and knee replacements at younger and younger ages, we treat cancer and obesity associated psychiatric disorders, we request lab tests and imaging studies to evaluate fatty liver disease and manage the complications of NASH cirrhosis (which, in fact, is the fastest growing, and soon the single most important indication for liver transplantation). By requiring repeat hospital admissions, numerous outpatient consultations, and long-term drug treatment, this all consumes a substantial and increasing proportion of our already limited health care budgets.
Should we, as responsible individuals, as citizens and taxpayers, as members of the medical community, as a department, and as an institution, not rather address the root cause for all of this: obesity – not only using a medical perspective, but also a broad and multi-pronged societal approach? This might mean lobbying for and drumming up the political will to effectively address the problem at its origin, building comprehensive obesity programs with a focus on prevention, rather than solely treatment of obesity associated disorders and diseases, running strategically and long-term awareness campaigns, implementing measures to incentivize healthy food choices and life styles with both, consumers and the food and beverage industry.
Is it really correct that a liter of a coke is less expensive than a liter of milk, and does it really have to be that way? Why do we allow the food and beverage industry to make a profit, but keep turning a blind eye that this comes at the cost of making people sick? We have made great inroads with discouraging smoking, we need to fight and achieve the same with eating habits and life styles leading to obesity. This is not about (moral) judgement, this is a business case: if we want to stay able to afford offering the necessary health care to those who need it, we have at the same time to stop generating preventable, additional demand. If a boat springs a leak, you have to plug the hole, not just scoop out the water.