‘Better Health’: Will the Government’s New Anti-Obesity Campaign Help Fight COVID-19?
Boris Johnson has said his own experience with coronavirus inspired him to help the UK get fitter and healthier. But what is the relationship between obesity and coronavirus?
Published: Tuesday 11 August 2020
The UK government has recently launched a new initiative to help people lose weight amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In a bid to protect the nation against coronavirus and relieve pressure on the NHS, the ‘Better Health’ campaign will introduce a raft of measures including bans on junk food adverts, ending bargain deals on unhealthy food, and a strategy to get more people exercising.
Boris Johnson has admitted he came up with the idea while he was severely ill with coronavirus back in April. In a video launching the strategy, the prime minister said: “When I went into ICU (intensive care) when I was really ill, I was way overweight. I’m only about 5ft 10 at the outside and I was too fat.”
But while Johnson has blamed the severity of his illness on his weight, it’s important to ask: is coronavirus really more dangerous for overweight people? If so, to what extent? And for those of us looking to protect our health by shedding a few pounds, what’s the best way to go about it?
Obesity and Coronavirus: What the Data Shows
Since the World Health Organisation declared coronavirus a pandemic back in March, a number of studies investigating the relationship between weight and symptom severity have been carried out. Across the globe, the countries with the highest rates of COVID-related mortality also have high obesity rates. Britain has the highest COVID-related mortality rate in Europe, and one of the continent’s highest obesity rates. Professor John Wilding, president of the World Obesity Federation, has said obesity doubles the chance of death by coronavirus in the UK. In short, the data seems clear: being obese makes you significantly more likely to die from coronavirus.
But why? There are a number of ways obesity can make it more difficult for people to combat coronavirus if they’re infected. People who are hospitalised with COVID-19 are often put on ventilators in order to help them breathe. Obesity, however, reduces lung capacity, which makes ventilation significantly more difficult. In addition, severe obesity puts the immune system under immense pressure.
“Excess fatty tissue, when it reaches a certain point, starts to secrete certain hormones which make your body think that it’s inflamed,” consultant bariatric surgeon Shaw Somers told the Guardian. “When it becomes extremely severe, at very, very heavy weight, it is the thing that drives the damage to all their organs. Their body thinks it’s chronically inflamed and this just basically trashes a lot of their essential systems like the kidneys, the lungs, the heart, etc.”
For the severely obese, the immune system is already working overtime. When coronavirus is added to the mix, the consequences can be fatal. “What we know from COVID is, those who do badly have an exaggerated inflammatory response that comes on after seven to 10 days,” Somers explained. “Their immune system goes berserk and kills them. And we think that obesity just amplies it and makes it much worse.”
Not only is obesity detrimental to the immune system, but there is also evidence to suggest that body fat contains high levels of an enzyme the coronavirus attaches itself to. This means that an excess of body fat gives coronavirus more chance to enter the body.
Too Little, Too Late?
While the link between obesity and COVID mortality is well-documented, however, some experts have raised concerns that the government’s initiative will not work quickly enough, if at all. Commentators have warned that the UK is likely to endure a second wave of the virus in winter, and it is unlikely that many of Britain’s 35 million overweight people will have slimmed down for when the weather gets cold. “I welcome these measures,” Martin Caraher, emeritus professor of food and health policy at City, University of London, told Wired. “But in terms of prevention, this is probably a two to three year agenda, not a three month agenda.”
An additional shortcoming of the government’s campaign, Caraher pointed out, is its focus on factors that are arguably less important than they used to be. Banning junk food ads from TV, for example, is of little use when children today consume all their media on the internet. “We know that companies have already moved online with promotions and games,” Caraher said. “And why not remove fat, salt and sugar from products, or set levels as in the case of salt so the choice is not at an individual level.”
And even if the government manages to mount a successful weight loss campaign, critics have argued that it does nothing to resolve the systemic factors that contribute and lead to obesity. A 2018 study published in the Lancet, for example, found that while children born in 1946 to poor families were more likely to be underweight, those born in 2001 were the exact opposite. Deprivation is a significant determinant of obesity in the UK, and yet it’s safe to suggest there’s nothing in the government’s new campaign to address it.
Lockdown Gets Brits Moving
That said, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that Britons are using the pandemic as an opportunity to get fit. A survey published in May by Nuffield Health, for example, found that three quarters of Brits had taken up at least one new form of exercise during lockdown - and eight out of 10 of respondents planned to stick with their new regimen. In addition, online workouts enjoyed a huge expansion during lockdown, meaning fitness classes are easier to access than ever.
But what about people who want to lose weight, but don’t know where to start? If that’s you, don’t worry - starting a weight loss program can be a hugely daunting experience. That said, any effective weight loss regimen should begin by addressing two crucial factors: diet and physical activity.
The first step is to figure out which foods - and how much of them - you can eat. Thankfully, any online BMI calculator will be able to work out your personal calorie limit using your height and weight. And once you have your limit, you can work out which foods to eat and how many calories they contain using the NHS calorie checker.
Once you have your diet plan sorted, the next thing to incorporate into your weight loss regimen is exercise. Any increase in physical activity is hugely beneficial for both your physical and mental health - but if you’re really looking to shed the pounds, a fitness routine that incorporates cardio, strength training and lots of stretching will speed your journey to a healthy body right up. And you’d like to know more about the best way to lose weight, check out our ultimate guide to weight loss.
Everyone wants to live healthily. And despite the unprecedented times we live in, it could well be that coronavirus ends up kickstarting the UK towards a fitter, healthier future.
Authored by Harry Walker
Patient Care Specialist
After graduating with a degree in Journalism at City, University of London, Harry joined the Pharmica team as a Patient Care Specialist and content writer.
In addition to helping in the dispensary, Harry consults with our in-house pharmacists to produce engaging, informative and expert content for our patients.