5 Things I Learned From the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit

Dr. Tara Fernandez, a Postdoctoral Fellow in the lab of Dr. Ed Conway at the CBR, attended the 5th Canadian Obesity Summit held on April 25 to 29, 2017 in Banff, Alberta. Funding to attend these meetings was partly provided by Travel Awards from the Centre for Blood Research (CBR).

Obesity is a multi-faceted disease with an abundance of overlapping metabolic, genetic and lifestyle factors that contribute to its significant prevalence in the community. The 5th Canadian Obesity Summit, held in Banff, Alberta, brought together over 600 delegates committed to advancing the understanding of this chronic illness. Researchers, healthcare professionals and policy makers were all well-represented at the week-long meeting, which encompassed various workshops, strategic planning meetings, keynote speeches and pecha kucha presentations. At the meeting, I showcased some recent findings from the Conway Lab, showing a novel molecular mediator of adipocyte, or fat cell, metabolism and differentiation. These are some insights from the other engaging presentations on the current trends in obesity research.

  1. Sowing the seeds of healthy living starts in the community

One of the main objectives of the Summit was to brainstorm and promote advancements in the field of obesity prevention and treatment. Among the many initiatives that were discussed was the Alberta Pediatric Obesity Strategy. Statistics indicate that upwards of 60% of adult Albertans and, shockingly, 25% of children in the province are obese, putting an incredible financial burden on health care systems and taking a toll on the whole community. A holistic approach to obesity management was proposed to tackle this problem in children, in which information on practical steps towards a healthier lifestyle is channeled to the affected families. This ranged from educating both parents and children about healthy eating, as well as discussing less talked about issues like self-esteem and emotional factors governing eating behavior. An online obesity management program was also developed to empower healthcare providers with the tools to adequately assist Albertans towards reaching their health goals.

  1. Incorporate healthy habits into your everyday routine

Delegates at the Summit were encouraged by organizers to practice what they preach – through a series of fitness activities scattered throughout the conference program. Despite the frosty mornings in the mountains, there was a good turnout for the Running Club which saw keen conference goers pounding the pavement around the Fairmont. Hatha yoga, boxing and mindfulness workshops were also held, which gave participants a chance to work up a sweat while networking. Brown bag lunches at the conference also reflected the importance of clean eating on well-being. Meals were packed full of fresh vegetables and whole grains to prevent those mid-afternoon energy crashes. Indeed, overwhelming data presented at the summit shows that a balanced and nutritious diet and physical activity are among the paramount factors in preventing weight gain and obesity.

  1. Early lifestyle interventions begin in the womb

One fascinating session of the conference focused on an interesting and relatively unexplored concept: that obesity prevention can be established at the fetal stage. Factors influencing both the health of the mother and baby were discussed in a session chaired by Dr. Kristi Adamo from the University of Ottawa, and Dr. Jean-Patrice Baillargeon of Université de Sherbrooke. Strategies towards this primordial prevention of obesity take the form of a multi-tiered approach, from mass spectrometry-based metabolomics screening to mobile apps to help mothers reduce gestational weight gain. Research is also focused on placental gene expression and metabolic functions and their implications on the health of the newborn, thus giving children the best chance of a healthy start to life.

  1. Trusting your gut feeling: importance of the microbiome in obesity

The relationship between the gut microbial flora and the development of various immune functions and disease development is the subject of intense research. The importance of this is reflected in the CIHR-funded IMAGINE (Inflammation, Microbiome and Alimentation: Gastro-Intestinal and Neuropsychiatric Effects) network – with $12.5 million in funding for this large, collaborative effort. The conference review session on the link between the microbiome and obesity was chaired by Dr. Phillip Sherman, Scientific Director of CIHR’s Institute of Nutrition, Metabolism and Diabetes. This session put the spotlight on how crucial the trillions of bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract are, not just for digestion, but also for metabolic regulation, beginning as early as the prenatal period. In fact, several common bacterial species known to play a role in fat deposition and insulin resistance including Bacteroidetes and Firmicutes are passed on to newborns during birth. In adults, a diet rich in prebiotics such as inulin, resistant starch and oligosaccharides, together with probiotics such as the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, and Enterococcus species have been shown to promote weight loss and fat storage.

  1. Effects of exercise on fat tissue metabolism

One of the hallmarks of obesity is increased inflammation within the fat tissue. This is associated with an increase in the infiltration of inflammatory cells such as macrophages, together with elevated cytokine expression, which has been linked to the onset of insulin resistance. Dr. David Wright, from the University of Guelph, chaired a session on how physical exercise modulates fat cell metabolism and glucose homeostasis. Evidence is building that aerobic exercise has a protective anti-inflammatory effect on adipocytes, as well as elevating mitochondrial proteins and metabolic enzymes within these cells. This drives home the importance of physical exercise on maintaining wellbeing from a cellular level.

Hearing clinical and scientific perspectives on obesity at the summit emphasized the complexity of this global epidemic. Strengthening efforts towards developing more preventative rather than therapeutic approaches seems to be a current focus. In addition, helping to change societal stereotypes and increasing community awareness is important in assisting patients on their journeys towards good health. I am very grateful to the CBR for the Travel Award which facilitated my attendance at this conference.

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