“Society deserves that we make scientific knowledge more widely accessible”

Internist Liesbeth van Rossum about tackling overweight
Person seen from behind in yellow T-shirt with tennis racket on tennis court.
Liesbeth van Rossum at work 2

Liesbeth van Rossum (internist, professor of obesity Erasmus MC) has been nominated for the Woman in the Media Award 2021. She makes scientific knowledge about obesity more widely accessible, more targeted, and thus makes a lot of social impact. “Sharing scientific knowledge is extremely important. Especially when it comes to being overweight. More than half of the Dutch population is overweight and 14% is obese. It’s time for real action. I don't just want to talk about science at scientific conferences.”

Too much belly fat is dangerous

“We often think: a few kilos extra, it doesn't matter that much. But being overweight is a serious problem and too much belly fat can have major consequences. In addition to the well-known overweight diseases, related diseases such as diabetes and heart diseases can also cause sadness, cancer, and infertility," says Van Rossum. We also saw the consequences repeatedly in the corona pandemic.

“The corona crisis is an acute viral pandemic, but obesity is a chronic pandemic. Obesity contributes to the impact of corona on society because there it increases the risk of a serious course of the illness. Eighty percent of people with corona in the ICU are overweight. Obesity really is a disease, in which especially the hormonally active belly fat starts to malfunction, and that's how we should look at it. We often only start treatment when someone has already had a heart attack, a new knee or has become depressed. All things related to being overweight. At the same time, healthcare is becoming unaffordable.”

According to the internist, the solution is already there: prevention and treatment. "Why don't we invest more in them? Why don't we guide our patients better? Everyone has to deal with food. And with digestion, stress and sleep. All kinds of factors that influence each other and that all play a part. “Going on a diet” is not an obesity treatment. We know how complex it is and it is our job to make this acquaintance and to start a conversation. Moreover, research is also done with government subsidies, so it is only natural to give this back to society. That's what we do it for.”

Van Rossum: A successful scientist
Liesbeth van Rossum was named European leader in obesity research in 2020 and was named Rotterdam Woman of the Year in 2021. She was also chair of the Young Erasmus Academy, a selection of young top scientists whose aim, among other things, is to make science accessible to a wide audience. Van Rossum herself was the first to give her inaugural lecture 'You're not fat for fun' in a new style. This inaugural lecture was broadcast live on YouTube in 2017, has more than 150,000 views and can still be viewed.

Fat: the Secret Organ, an international bestseller

Together with fellow doctor and scientist Mariëtte Boon, Van Rossum wrote the book 'FAT: the Secret Organ'. A book that is now available in 11 languages ​​and has won several audience awards. “I often told the same story during my consultation hours. I wanted to make this information more accessible to a wider audience. It's just not fair to keep scientific knowledge just for science. This knowledge can contribute to solutions for social issues. We have written the book as accessible as possible. And of course, we looked for ways to write it in a fun way to show you how you can influence your appetite and weight in surprising ways, and we were pleasantly surprised by all the enthusiastic reviews.”

"Unconsciously, we are being urged to make unhealthy choices"

Liesbeth van Rossum
Levien Willemse

Collaborations between economists and behavioral scientists

Many factors play a role in tackling a disease such as obesity. According to Van Rossum, collaboration between different scientific specialties is needed for the solution. “Obesity is a social problem; you cannot approach it from one faculty or one specialisation. In addition to medical knowledge, you also need knowledge from economists and behavioral scientists. The best approach is both to treat people who are already seriously overweight and to prevent even more people from developing overweight, so collective prevention. It is also important, for example, how a city can best be designed: How can we improve the environment in such a way that exercise becomes more fun and easier, and people are tempted to make healthy food choices? We really have to do it together. Globally, obesity is now a bigger problem than famine.”

We unconsciously make unhealthy choices every day

It is often said that people should have the freedom to make their own health choices. But how do we make healthy choices? “The problem is that most choices are unconscious. For example, we make an average of more than 200 food choices per day, most of which are unconscious. Seeing an advertisement for a bar of chocolate, or when you walk past a fragrant snack bar: this triggers a tasty appetite for us. Subconsciously we are called upon to buy and eat this."

“As scientists, we need to better explain how our bodies and brains work. By seeing and smelling good food, our body produces hunger hormones. In this way, the environment controls our body and brain. In fact, we don't have that much freedom of choice when we place snack bars right next to schools or in busy shopping streets. Science also shows this. The environment certainly plays a role. We can therefore ask ourselves: what is needed to protect our public health? We could deal with this much more efficiently to prevent people from becoming so ill.”

An Affordable and Modern Future of Public Health

Van Rossum also shares her knowledge with policymakers and political parties. “I am very happy that the sugar tax is included in the coalition agreement. Conversations with The Hague really bring change. We could achieve a lot of health benefits and possibly also save costs by focusing more on prevention. And, of course, provide the right treatment for obese people. Now we do treat those 200 other diseases that are caused by or are related to obesity, but we often do too little about obesity itself and too little about its prevention. Changing a lifestyle is easy, but losing weight is complex for obese people. This is because the body activates numerous mechanisms to prevent weight loss. People should get much better help with this. And preventing obesity would still be the best thing, but unfortunately for many it is already too late.”

Van Rossum's passion and dedication are clearly visible. “I see a lot of suffering in the people in my office who are obese. For many it is not as simple as 'exercising a little more and eating healthier' and just trying a little harder. I see people's sadness, but also how people are judged. Obese people are less likely to find a job. There is a real stigma attached to obesity. It is often said: 'eat less and you're done!' but it is more complex than that. We need to take this more seriously, also internationally, obesity has not been defined as a disease by the WHO for nothing. We need more preventive measures, knowledge sharing and real treatments.”

Prof.dr. E.F.C. (Liesbeth) van Rossum
More information

Make sure that Liesbeth van Rossum receives the Woman in the Media award and vote: https://vidm.nl/vrouw-in-de-media-awards/landelijk

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