Teresa Quattrin, MD, and Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, shown in a photo from a previous year, address adolescent obesity in an editorial in JAMA Pediatrics.

Researchers Focus Spotlight on Adolescent Obesity

Published June 8, 2020

Department of Pediatrics faculty members Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, and Teresa Quattrin, MD, address the growing problem of adolescent obesity in a recent editorial in JAMA Pediatrics.

“Adolescent obesity is a serious and growing public health problem that threatens both current and future health outcomes. ”
Leonard H. Epstein, PhD, and Teresa Quattrin, MD
Writing in JAMA Pediatrics
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Multidisciplinary Approaches Needed

“Attempts should be made to disseminate evidence-based behavioral, pharmacologic, surgical and device-based treatments, and develop new interventions that incorporate multidisciplinary approaches to the treatment of adolescent obesity,” Epstein and Quattrin write in an editorial titled “Ideas for Next-Generation Treatments for Adolescent Obesity” in the March 23 issue.

Epstein, SUNY Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and division chief of behavioral medicine; and Quattrin, UB Distinguished Professor of pediatrics and senior associate dean for research integration, note that effectively treating adolescents for obesity poses unique challenges. The adolescent years range from 11 to 21, a span that involves many physical and psychological changes.

Physical, Psychological Changes Addressed

On the physical side, these changes include sexual dimorphism, sex-specific hormone changes that often occur prematurely in young people with obesity, and natural insulin resistance that is enhanced in individuals who are overweight.

From a psychological standpoint, adolescents’ drive for autonomy, the shift from parental/adult influence to peer influence, and the development from immature to mature impulse control systems balanced by a mature reward system can complicate treatment, primarily because most treatments do not focus on the psychological factors.

Long-Term Approach Needed to Tackle Problem

The researchers say that obesity in adolescents should be considered a chronic disease and treated as such over a long-term basis.

“Approaching adolescent obesity as a chronic disease allows for treatments with the goal of reducing weight during adolescence to reduce health risks associated with obesity and changing the trajectory of weight from adolescence to adulthood,” they write. “Interventions are needed that adapt the treatments to the changing psychological needs of adolescents with obesity as they traverse the rocky road of adolescence.”

Using a long-term care approach would likely lead to reduced health care costs, they add.

Match Adolescents to Specific Treatments

Epstein and Quattrin also point out that since everyone learns at a different rate, mastery-based behavioral treatments that match the presentation of the treatment with the rate of learning may be more effective than treatments that provide the same protocol for everyone.

“The idea that there are individual differences in learning to implement lifestyle changes can be a platform to develop a personalized approach to treatment that targets the unique pathophysiology that led to obesity that may make weight loss or weight maintenance challenging,” they write.

Epstein and Quattrin urge clinicians to examine new treatment designs to maximize outcomes. They cite the multiphase optimization strategy (MOST) and the Sequential Multiple Assignment Randomized Trial (SMART) model.

The use of the SMART design may improve clinical translation because it mimics what health care professionals do in real life when they try new approaches when specific treatments do not work,” they write.

Family Plays Key Role in Treatment Success

Even though adolescents desire autonomy, researchers say the best treatment approach would include the family, a concept that to their knowledge has not been explored.

“This could ultimately lead to an innovative family-personalized approach, which can capitalize on the likelihood of genetic and psychosocial similarities among several family members,” they write.

Address Social Disparities, Health Inequities

They also write that while there are currently few approved drugs to treat for adolescent obesity, certain medications that reduce the reinforcing value of food would be valuable to help adolescents change their eating habits and lose weight.

Because obesity affects a disproportionate number of adolescents with social disparities and heath inequities who might not have access to an obesity specialist, there needs to be interventions that can be carried out in pediatric primary care settings, they write. However, the general lack of specialized knowledge about diet, exercise, behavior change and obesity among clinicians poses a particular challenge.

“Adolescent obesity is a serious and growing public health problem that threatens both current and future health outcomes,” they write.