In the last decade, the landscape of obesity has completely changed how the disease is understood, affecting the way it can be treated, said Dr. Shahebina Walji, medical director at the Calgary Weight Management Centre.

“There are a whole host of factors [contributing to obesity],” she said, during a session at Benefits Canada’s 2019 Calgary Benefits Summit at the Fairmont Palliser Hotel on May 22. “There’s genetics, [with] around 100 spots on the human genome that can contribute to weight gain. These genes interact with our environment, so where we live, who we live with, what we do, what we don’t do, what we eat, what we don’t eat, can all turn these genes on and off in a way that will favour weight gain.”

Read: Workplace weight programs can foster discrimination of obese employees 

These factors influence the biology occurring in our brain, altering the signalling pathways in a way that favours weight gain, said Walji, noting these changes are often irreversible. “We often see structural changes within the brain that caused the body to defend a higher body weight. So this is a very medical, not behavioural, issue. And obesity is relentless. It does not go away.”

In 2015, the Canadian Medical Association declared obesity a chronic disease and many other organizations worldwide have recognized it as such, she noted. “We have six million individuals in Canada living with obesity. This represents about 22 per cent of our Canadian adult population and just under 10 per cent of our Canadian paediatric population.”

Read: Employers urged to boost tracking of obesity efforts

The bigger question, however, is how does obesity affect the workplace? For employers, one of the impacts is the cost, said Walji. “Obesity is costly at $7.1 billion in direct and indirect costs attributable to obesity. We see higher rates of absenteeism and presenteeism in individuals with obesity compared to those who don’t have obesity.”

By 2030, obesity rates are going to be close to 30 per cent, she added. “So the good thing is that over 50 per cent of employer respondents [to a study] believe obesity is a serious, a very serious or an extremely serious health condition and they’re motivated to help. We have roughly 50 per cent feeling they are responsible for supporting their employees with weight loss but employees feel alone.”

Read: What are the ingredients of a successful wellness program?

And though a majority of employers do offer wellness programs, Walji noted the study also found employees aren’t aware of these programs or, if they are aware, they’re not engaging with them. “So there’s a mismatch here. We have well-intentioned employers trying to offer these things for their employees, but employees either don’t know about it or they’re not engaging in it.”

Employers should consider what offerings they include in their wellness programs, she said. “Do your plans align with health support? Do they cover medications? Are there other ways? We need to tackle this from every dimension. There must be ways within the company to optimize efforts, because there is no cure for obesity.”

Read more stories from the 2019 Calgary Benefits Summit.