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August 26, 2020

Obesity ups risk of Covid-19 death, global study finds

A global study, commissioned by the World Bank, paints a stark picture about the links between obesity and severe complications from Covid-19.

By Dean Best

Obesity more than doubles the risk of ending up in hospital with Covid-19 and increases the chances of death by nearly 50%, according to the results of a global study published today (26 August).

The research, commissioned by the World Bank, finds people with obesity – with a BMI of over 30 – are at greater risk of severe illness and death from the novel coronavirus.

According to the study, carried out by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the risk of hospitalisation from Covid-19 is increased by 113%. The chances of being admitted to intensive care is 74% higher and the obese have a heightened risk of death from the virus (at 48%).

Obesity is associated with underlying risk factors for Covid-19, including heart disease and Type 2 diabetes, the authors of the report warned. They also argued metabolic changes caused by obesity – such as insulin resistance and inflammation – make it difficult for individuals with obesity to fight some infections, a trend seen in other infectious diseases, such as influenza.

Lockdowns imposed to try to curb the transmission of the virus have made it harder for individuals to achieve or sustain a healthy weight, the report argued.

Barry Popkin, Professor of Nutrition at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and one of the report’s authors, said the lockdowns meant populations were moving less, while economic pressures were also hampering the ability of some citizens to eat more healthily.

“We’re not only at home more and experiencing more stress due to the pandemic, but we’re also not visiting the grocery store as often, which means the demand for highly processed junk foods and sugary beverages that are less expensive and more shelf-stable has increased,” Popkin asserted. “These cheap foods are high in sugar, sodium and saturated fat, and they’re laden with highly refined carbohydrates, which all increase the risk of not only excess weight gain but also key non-communicable diseases.”

Another of the report’s authors, Dr. Melinda Beck, has carried out research said to demonstrate influenza vaccines can be less effective in adults with obesity. The same may be true for a future vaccine for Covid-19, Dr. Beck said, though she added: “However, we are not saying that the vaccine will be ineffective in populations with obesity, but rather that obesity should be considered as a modifying factor when conducting vaccine testing. Even a less protective vaccine will still offer some level of immunity.”

The study, published in the journal Obesity Reviews, analysed data from studies from countries including the US, the UK, France and China.

Last month, UK government agency Public Health England issued a report the agency said confirmed being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of “severe illness and death” from the novel coronavirus.

The UK government has set out measures ministers believe will help tackle what it has called an “obesity time bomb” made more urgent by the Covid-19 pandemic. Restrictions on advertising and promotions were among the initiatives set out last month, moves the food industry labelled “a punishing blow”.

In Mexico, the state of Oaxaca earlier this month passed a law banning the sale of high-calorie ‘junk food’ and sugary soft drinks to minors. Mexico, like other nations, has been fighting a battle against obesity, in children and adults, for some time, and the state of the nation’s health has been blamed in some quarters for the toll the Covid-19 virus has taken on the population in the country.

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