Many years ago at a meeting that addressed the usefulness of prescribing appetite suppressants for weight loss, one of the speakers (whose name will not be mentioned in case my memory is incorrect) said,
“Obesity is a chronic disease. Don’t think that allowing a patient to use weight-loss drugs will produce a permanent weight loss, or that other weight-loss intervention will also stop future weight gain. Obesity, like depression, alcoholism or autoimmune diseases, is chronic, and chronic diseases may go into remission because of medication and/or effective behavioral changes….So while sometimes one treatment is sufficient, the depression or skin rash never reappears after the initial intervention. The alcoholic stays abstinent. Rarely is it that the diet plan or diet drug or surgery produces a permanent, positive change and weight stays normal. More commonly? The disorder reappears, more than once, and requires repeated behavioral, and/or medical interventions. Indeed, chronic treatment may be the only way to prevent flare-ups, a return of drinking, or depression.”
He went on to say that there is a bias toward people who gain weight again and again. We all know this…From the cruel remarks we make when someone is on a diet (Another one? Not again!) or gaining back the weight lost from the previous one (See, I knew she would never keep the weight off! ) to the hopeless attitude of physicians who give up helping a patient deal with constant diet failures (There’s no point wasting time talking about losing weight; he/she never listens.)
Weight-loss advice ranges from suggesting the most ridiculous or severe diets, to the simplistic mantra of portion control and exercise. Or else we keep quiet and shake our heads. “See,” we say to each other, “she has gained back all the weight she lost last year.“ And then we judge the currently popular diet with the comment, “Too bad this didn’t work, either.”
Yet so many of us have friends, colleagues, relatives, and acquaintances who have been abstinent and suddenly are found drinking again, perhaps after years of not doing so. When they are able to resume their AA meetings or come out of rehab, we don’t berate them with, “You failed. What is the point of helping when you will fail again? “ Rather, we support their effects to succeed.
If we treat obesity as a disease with a high probability of reoccurrence, as is the case with depression or alcoholism, then our entire approach to treatment can differ. All interventions will be presented honestly as a means of bringing the patient into remission, which may last weeks, months, or years. Still, the interventions will not be presented as a permanent cure. Taking out a diseased appendix is a permanent cure for a diseased appendix. Staying abstinent, if not a cure for alcoholism, is remission one day at a time. Losing weight is not a permanent cure for obesity. Rather, it is remission from overeating and underexercising, one day at a time.
Treating obesity as a chronic disease allows a variety of interventions to be tried without blaming the patient if he or she fails to succeed at one or the other. Depressed patients are often switched from drug to drug, and the patient is not blamed when the depression doesn’t respond to a particular medication. Just as talk therapy is considered as important as drug treatment for depression and related mental illness, so too talk therapy should be part of the obesity treatment. Recognising what might erode control over eating is essential for success on a current diet, but also in delaying the onset of another weight gain flare-up. Semi-annual check-ups of weight status must be mandatory so the patient and care provider can identify emotional, situational, or even hormonal changes that might start the weight gain process. Such check-ups should remove the inevitability of weight gain in the minds of the patients.
For example, people who suffer from winter depression resign themselves to gaining weight over the dark months of late fall and winter, since weight gain is one of the symptoms of this particular type of depression. People also assume and anticipate gaining weight over the holidays. But why should this be? Would we assume that a friend, a recovering alcoholic, would start drinking over the winter, or that someone who is depressed every winter not be treated because the depression will come back the next year? If a patient had an intolerable flare-up of psoriasis, which can be maddeningly itchy, then every winter wouldn’t a dermatologist take steps to prevent it from occurring?
Because we don’t view obesity as a chronic disease, we simply do not treat it when we should. We don’t say to someone gaining weight, “You are experiencing a weight gain flare-up. It is important for you to be treated now before the situation becomes intolerable or hard to reverse.” A patient who has reoccurring depression should obviously be treated long before the symptoms become life-threatening. When the weight gain flare-ups occur, treatments also should be initiated. They include appetite suppressants, therapy, consultation with a physical therapist about exercise, use of calorie-controlled meals until control over eating is resumed, and participation in weight-loss support groups.
Of course, none of this will work if the weight-gaining patient refuses to acknowledge what is happening and/or resists treatment. Not all alcoholics who have failed to remain abstinent acknowledge what is happening or seek treatment; when they do, many are able to go back into remission. We must tell the obese individual to stop hoping for permanent weight loss. Keep the weight off today, and we will be there to help you if tomorrow is a problem.