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Physicians should lead by example to combat the obesity epidemic

Doctors and obesity
Dr. Damien Hansra urges doctors to lose weight and lead by example in the battle against obesity.

We are suffering an obesity crisis in the United States, where an estimated 300,000 deaths per year are linked to obesity, and the trend is predicted to worsen. Experts estimate that 85 percent of American adults will be overweight or obese by 2030. Consequently, obesity-related illnesses, most notably cancer, are on the rise. In 2014, more than 630,000 people in the United States were diagnosed with a cancer that has been linked to weight or obesity, and the rates of 12 out of 13 obesity-related cancers have risen 7 percent from 2005 to 2014. The death toll, associated morbidities and costs associated with obesity seem to be spiraling out of control, without clear leadership to defend our population from this malignant epidemic.

Doctors, viewed by most as the leaders in medicine, are not immune to the obesity crisis. According to the 2007 Physicians Health Study of 19,000 doctors, 40 percent were overweight and 23 percent were obese. Overweight and obese doctors are significantly less likely to counsel their patients about weight loss. Also, overweight and obese doctors feel less confident in counseling patients on weight loss compared to normal-weight doctors. One study found that 41 percent of cancer patients prefer to listen to a normal-weight oncologist rather than an overweight or obese oncologist regarding weight-loss counseling.

Does it seem right for a doctor who smokes to tell his patients to stop smoking? Historically, smoking cessation rates, in part, increased after doctors stopped smoking and increasingly engaged in advocating for smoking cessation programs for patients. We physicians need to learn from the success of tobacco control and start to lose weight ourselves and lead patients by example. As doctors rise to the challenge and increasingly engage in healthy lifestyle habits to induce weight loss, they would be better suited to lead the charge against this insidious opponent. Once doctors champion the fight against obesity, it is foreseeable that patients, and other parties such as medical societies, industry leaders and policy makers, would be galvanized and aligned in developing treatment and prevention strategies to combat this public health crisis.

Learn how sticking to some New Year’s resolutions may help cut cancer risk.