From the 17th to the 18th of May, the Association for the Study of Obesity on the Island of Ireland (ASOI) held their annual conference to coincide with European World Obesity Day at The Convention Centre, Dublin. ASOI is the Irish representative body at the European Association for the Study of Obesity (EASO) and the World Obesity Federation. The aims of ASOI are to develop an understanding of obesity by pursuing excellence in research and education and by the facilitation of contact between individuals and organisations. A key role of ASOI is the promotion of action to prevent and treat obesity across the island of Ireland and the focus of this year’s conference was “Building Bonds, Bettering Practice: Patient Advocacy and approaches to reduce obesity stigma”.
The conference was open to the public and well over 200 people were in attendance over the 2 days. During the conference, attendees shared details of current research, experiences and suggestions for ways to help reduce obesity stigma. Dr Jean O’Connell & Prof. Donal O’Shea were on hand to open the conference and the first session was chaired by Prof. Carel Le Roux. Key-note speakers were Prof. Arya Sharma and Dr Ximena Ramos Salas. Prof. Arya Sharma spoke about Ethical dilemmas in obesity prevention and treatment and asked us to consider obesity in comparison to how other diseases like heart disease are treated. A key message was to remind the audience that body weight is not a behaviour and by focusing only on prevention we are ignoring the need for treatment. The next step in Ireland is to get consensus on treating obesity as a chronic disease. Dr Ramos Salas spoke about taking a more person-centred approach to the treatment of Obesity and pointed out that research has shown that framing obesity as a disease is not counterproductive. By treating obesity early on it can stop complications later. We already do this for Type 2 Diabetes for example, where we aim to prevent people from going blind. Obesity care involves prevention and treatment but health promotion is not an obesity strategy.
The packed programme continued after a movement break & refreshments. Session 2 explored topics including the effectiveness of interventions by Ms Marita Hennessy, Barriers and enablers to successful extended breastfeeding in women with high BMIs by Dr Sharleen O’Reilly, A 6 week pain management programme by Mr Colin Dunlevy, Stigma reduction towards persons with obesity by Dr Caroline Heary & Insights from the ROLO Family Advisory Committee were presented by Dr Eileen O’Brien & Ms Samantha Reilly. The afternoon session, chaired by Prof. Francis Finucane, provided some visual insight into the embodiment of weight stigma in the form of Dr Oli Williams’ comic book “The “Weight” of Expectation”. Dr Williams, a sociologist who researches inequality & health, spoke about the three Obesity paradoxes and questioned does obesity cause ill health or is it merely correlated and whether it might be more beneficial to examine the “causes of the causes of ill health” such as the social determinants of health reiterating the point that everyone knows to eat healthy and exercise. All this talk of being “good” or “bad” gets under our skin and we internalise these stigmas so it is important to address the problem of stigma and aim for weight neutral care for health promotion.
A lively panel discussion followed media representations of obesity which were explored from three different perspectives. Ms June Shannon, Irish Heart Foundation Journalist asked "Where is the outrage at the nine young patients with obesity who died on the waiting list for bariatric surgery in the past five years in Ireland?". Editor of The Star, Mr Neil Leslie, stressed the need for guidance for journalists in reporting on what language is appropriate and for access to non-stigmatising imagery and policies. Finally, Ms Vicki Mooney, Executive Director ECPO gave a personal account of childhood obesity and trauma, one aspect of obesity that is often overlooked.
On Saturday the conference celebrated European Obesity Day. Dr Jean O’Connell and Patient Co-Chair, Ms Susie Birney opened the morning session where we explored family-based cooking and eating for health with Ms Solveig Sigurdardottir and Ms Ciara de Burca. Dr Grace O’Malley led Session 2 on Movement and Activity with insightful and inspiring talks from Ms Emer O’Malley and Mr Paul Masterson on family-based movement and activity. The complex biology of obesity was the focus for the afternoon and Ms Vicki Mooney & Mr Eoin O’Connell spoke very movingly of their experiences of living with obesity and the need to unite patient voices. A very visual demonstration of how difficult it can be to keep weight off due to the complex neurobiology that controls weight was provided by Prof Arya Sharma and an unsuspecting volunteer from the audience.
In the closing session, Dr Ramos Salas, reiterated the need to address weight stigma. While, Patient Advocate, Louise Boree, reflected on appointments for mental health management and weight management being “like Venus and Mars” despite the conditions having a huge overlap and called upon professionals to remember that patients are “people-first”. The conference ended on a high with the inspirational Susie Birney, Maura Murphy and Marian Hughes explaining how patient support groups can empower those with obesity and promote self-acceptance by sharing with one another.
On a very personal level, as I listened to the lived experiences of those with Obesity I could relate. I too have experienced weight gain and obesity since my 20's which is linked to having an endocrine disorder called Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS). I have been on the receiving end of weight stigma and understand how it contributes to health inequalities. The take home message for me is that we are confounding health promotion with obesity treatment but people need support not stigma. An individual is not a disease, obesity is.