Obesity Touches Everything

As new anti-obesity medications draw greater attention to the medical treatment of obesity, and clinicians increasingly acknowledge that obesity is, in fact, a chronic disease rather than a mere lifestyle issue, more and more patients are asking their primary care providers (PCPs) for obesity treatment.

Considering that over 40% of U.S. adults have obesity and there are fewer than ten thousand obesity medicine specialists, PCPs are a critical part of the solution as we tackle this epidemic. While PCPs have extremely limited time to delve into the complexities of obesity and provide support between visits, it’s wonderful when they are knowledgeable about evidence-based obesity treatment so that they can at least initiate the conversation and refer their patients to an obesity specialist.

But the collaboration doesn’t stop there. Obesity is not only a chronic disease in its own right; it is also associated with more than 200 other conditions that can affect all body systems. According to data from IQVIA, people ages 40-64 with obesity have 2.4 comorbidities on average. That figure rises to 4.9 for individuals 65 and over (and 7% of people in the latter age group have 10 or more comorbidities). Effective treatment requires taking these comorbidities — and the medications often prescribed for them — into account and communicating with other members of the patient’s care team throughout treatment.

The following are just a few of the subspecialties that obesity touches.

  • Cardiology: The impacts of obesity on cardiovascular health — raising the risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and stroke, among other conditions — are among the best known and most thoroughly studied. In fact, the anti-obesity medication, Wegovy, was recently approved specifically to reduce the risk of adverse cardiovascular events in individuals with obesity and established cardiovascular disease.
  • Endocrinology: Adipose tissue is an active endocrine organ that produces more than a hundred different hormones, so it’s no surprise that endocrinologists are frequently involved in treating obesity-related conditions — Type 2 diabetes being the most familiar, but also polycystic ovarian syndrome and infertility, among many others.
  • Orthopedics: Obesity is a risk factor for the development of soft tissue damage and osteoarthritis in load-bearing joints, particularly the knees, due to both inflammation and mechanical stress. Joint pain then inhibits physical activity, which worsens obesity, creating a vicious circle — while also increasing the risk of complications associated with orthopedic surgery.
  • Oncology: Obesity is a risk factor for the development of many types of cancers, including breast, colon, rectal, pancreatic, kidney, esophagus, ovarian, skin, liver, thyroid, gallbladder, brain (meningioma) and endometrial cancer. Researchers believe that excess body fat leads to hormonal and metabolic changes that trigger inflammation and promote tumor growth.
  • Gastroenterology: Obesity is associated with many digestive system diseases, including gastroesophageal reflux disease, esophagitis, gallstones, metabolic dysfunction-associated fatty liver disease and cirrhosis, and various related cancers.
  • Pulmonology: Individuals with obesity face a higher risk of asthma, obstructive sleep apnea and other respiratory conditions (including, as we observed with COVID-19, potentially worse outcomes from viral infections).
  • Psychiatry: Obesity and depression are closely linked, with a bidirectional association, and it’s worth noting that many antidepressants can promote weight gain, so prescribers should be prepared to consider weight-neutral or weight-loss-promoting alternatives for patients with obesity when possible. Other common mental health comorbidities include anxiety and eating disorders.

For many of these obesity-related health complications, losing weight can be the first line of treatment, and the relationship is often dose-dependent, meaning that these conditions worsen as obesity worsens and improve as obesity improves. This correlation may lead us to instinctively reach for GLP-1 medications as the most effective option, since we want to help our patients lose as much of their excess weight as possible and experience the greatest benefit. But especially considering significant cost, coverage and supply constriants, other anti-obesity medications can still bring measurable health benefits and might even be preferable for many individuals. Losing just 5% to 10% of body weight can lead to clinically significant improvements in markers such as blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure.

Improving patient health — not just reaching an arbitrary number on the scale — is the ultimate goal. Obesity touches everything, and treating obesity can have a positive, cascading effect on other conditions. If we can help a patient achieve Type 2 diabetes remission, reversal of sleep apnea or improved fertility, we’ll have made a real difference in their life.


Medika Life has provided this material for your information. It is not intended to substitute for the medical expertise and advice of your health care provider(s). We encourage you to discuss any decisions about treatment or care with your health care provider. The mention of any product, service, or therapy is not an endorsement by Medika Life

Katherine Saunders, MD
Katherine Saunders, MDhttps://www.intellihealth.co/
Dr. Katherine H. Saunders is a physician entrepreneur and a leading expert in Obesity Medicine. She is on the cutting edge of effective and compassionate obesity treatment. Dr. Saunders practices at Intellihealth's clinical services affiliate, Flyte Medical, and teaches at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Saunders received her undergraduate degree Phi Beta Kappa/Summa Cum Laude from Dartmouth College and her medical degree from Weill Cornell Medical College, where she became a member of the Alpha Omega Alpha Honor Medical Society. She completed her internship and residency training in Internal Medicine at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Saunders was the first clinical fellow in Obesity Medicine at the Comprehensive Weight Control Center at Weill Cornell Medicine. Dr. Saunders is a diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine and the American Board of Obesity Medicine. She hosts the Weight Matters podcast with Dr. Louis Aronne, regularly speaks at international conferences, and publishes extensively on Obesity Medicine and weight management.
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