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Obesity ‘Epidemic’ in Europe as Experts Convene at ECO Conference

A new World Health Organization report released today shows that obesity has reached “epidemic” proportions in Europe: 59% of adults and almost one in three children (29% of boys and 27% of girls) are overweight or living with obesity. Obesity prevalence for adults in the European region is higher than in any other World Health Organization region except for the Americas, the agency says.

As this report is released, researchers are gathering to discuss obesity at the European Congress on Obesity, also known this year as the joint congress of the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) and the International Federation for the Surgery of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders-European Chapter (IFSO-EC), in Maastricht, the Netherlands. In total, 1500 people will gather in person, plus another 500 attendees are expected online.

Personalized management of obesity, weight stigma, sex differences in obesity and childhood, and adolescent obesity top the list of hot research topics at this year’s meeting.

There will also be a number of press conferences highlighting results of studies as varied as weight loss/change and subsequent risk of obesity-related complications, the impact of sleep on obesity, the effects of different dietary patterns on cardiometabolic health, and the various impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on obesity.

Chairing the joint EASO/IFSO-EC conference this year is Gijs Goossens, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Human Biology, NUTRIM School of Nutrition and Translational Research in Metabolism at the Maastricht University Medical Center, the Netherlands.

Management of obesity is increasingly moving towards personalized strategies from tailored lifestyle interventions (including diet and physical activity interventions) to custom-made strategies with respect to medication and surgery, he told Medscape Medical News in an interview. 

“More personalized approaches to prevent and treat both obesity and obesity-related complications may increase the effectiveness of interventions,” Goossens noted, adding that this was a key thread of this year’s scientific program.

Two plenaries are related to this topic, namely, “The long and winding road to precision medicine: Patient phenotyping – now and the future,” which is the opening plenary, and another entitled, “Towards personalized interventions: balancing (epi)genetics and environmental factors.”

Sex Does Matter: Differences in Metabolic Disease

Another fascinating topic is the differences between men and women in terms of metabolic diseases. Goossens said there needs to be “more emphasis” on sex differences in the causes as well as adequate prevention and management of obesity and its related complications.

“Sex does matter,” he emphasized, highlighting a session on this topic on May 6.

He explained how premenopausal women are at lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease compared with men of the same age and with the same body mass index.

“In general, women [before menopause] tend to store more fat in the lower part of the body, while men store their excess calories in the abdominal region.” However, following menopause, this female advantage is lost, partly due to a shift in body fat distribution from the lower to upper part of the body, explained Goossens, so that females [postmenopause] are then at even higher risk of type 2 diabetes than men of the same age.  

Weight regain after weight loss is also a major problem for many individuals, and Goossens pointed out that there are also notable differences between men and women in this regard, with men being more likely to regain more weight than women. 

Goossens’ own research is focused on what goes awry in the adipose tissue when people develop overweight and obesity. “We need to learn more about changes in the adipose tissue that might predict weight regain,” he observed.

“Disease etiology also seems different between women and men. Are there certain characteristics and early changes in the adipose tissue that will help us predict who will respond to specific interventions?” he added.

Childhood and Adolescent Obesity — Intervening Earlier in Life

On May 5, the congress will host a number of presentations on obesity in children and adolescents.

“Unfortunately, we see many more children and adolescents with obesity now, and by paying more attention to obesity in these age groups we hope to intervene in time to reduce the number of adults living with obesity,” Goossens emphasized.

Sessions will address the pharmacological treatment of obesity, for example, treatment with glucagon-like peptide-1 (GLP-1) agonists, and how appropriate these agents are for this age group.

“We also want to look at the patient and parental perspective of medical treatment. What is the parent’s view if your child is living with obesity? Even if the medical or surgical treatment option is available, do you actually want your child to have that?” he said.

An Ongoing Battle With Stigma in Obesity

Goossens also emphasized the important role of tackling weight stigma in the fight against obesity.

“Sadly, many people with excess weight feel stigmatized in many areas of their lives. It is important that people, including healthcare professionals, understand that obesity is not a lifestyle choice, and people should not be blamed for carrying excess weight,” he said.

“Stigma has a major impact…and may even lead people with obesity to avoid seeking healthcare or switching doctors. This is highly problematic.”

“Obesity is a complex, multifactorial chronic disease. Many factors contribute to the development of obesity, such as lifestyle, stress, medication that leads to weight gain, genetic factors, etc. It is important that people realize that obesity is a complex disease, since this may reduce stigma against people with obesity.”

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