BLOG BY Lucy Jones BSc

Is There A Link Between Obesity and Coronavirus

In England, 63% of adults are overweight or obese1. However, England is not alone since the World Health Organisation suggest that in 2016 39% and 13% of adults globally were overweight and obese, respectively – and these numbers have been increasing since the seventies2. Obesity increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease (including stroke), certain cancers (breast and bowel), musculoskeletal disorders (such as osteoarthritis) and can adversely affect self-esteem9, 10.

With the latest health threat of COVID-19, the government is seeking out ways it can help reduce the severity of the pandemic – particularly to reduce the burden on the NHS. Evidence has suggested that obesity increases the risk and severity of COVID-19 1, 3. As a result, the UK Government has released a new obesity strategy in an attempt to help reduce obesity rates and therefore the UK’s risk of COVID-191. Whilst it’s a step in the right direction that obesity is being addressed, it’s right to question whether the strategy will cause a beneficial change.

Banning high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) food adverts

The plan proposes banning HFSS foods before 9pm – limiting children’s exposure1. This could be ideal since it’s suggested that for each additional hour of television watched by children, there’s a 28% increased chance of HFSS foods being purchased – most likely due to pester power4.

Despite its potential to limit children’s exposure, it could result in increased consumption of HFSS foods after 9pm – a time when adults and teenagers are watching television. Teenagers are likely to have access to their own money and more freedom over food choice and thus this change may have little impact on this population.

Calorie labels in large restaurants, cafes and takeaways

As a country, we’re eating out more than ever before – with 75% of us eating out in the past week compared to 69% in 20101. So, it would seem that adding calorie labels to increase consumers awareness would be an ideal way to help. Despite the high obesity prevalence, it’s essential the Government don’t forget the estimated 1.25 million individuals in the UK suffering from an eating disorder5. Whilst calorie counting can play a helpful role for some people, for others it can lead to unhealthy behaviours. A study, using participants from an eating disorder clinic, discovered 74.3% of participants used a calorie counting app, with 73% suggesting these apps contributed towards their eating disorder in some way6. This suggests the addition of calorie labels on menus may promote calorie counting and potentially worsen eating disorders.

Ending BOGOF promotions

The new strategy could see the end of ‘buy one, get one free’ offers on HFSS foods, alongside limitations of where these foods can be placed in stores, such as on checkouts. Changes to the location of these foods may prove beneficial as 43% of these products are sugary foods and drinks – with only 1% of products deemed ‘healthy’1. Again, this plan could help in some way. However, the National Child Measurement Programme (2018/2019) states obesity in children from the ‘most deprived areas was more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas’7. If promotions are removed from shops, it’s possible that food bills may increase – potentially worsening financial situations for many households. The cost of food impacts food choice and ultimately access. In a study in Scotland, households in the most deprived areas spent less on food than the least deprived households. Despite this, it’s thought those in the most deprived areas spend a larger percentage of their budget on food. The study discovered those in the most deprived areas consumed fewer fruits and vegetables than the least deprived areas. This suggests that fruit and vegetables (which have many health benefits) aren’t easily accessible to those in deprivation11.

It’s essential that promotions on fruit and vegetables increase to ensure these foods become more accessible. By making fruits and vegetables more affordable, it’s hoped their consumption will increase. For example, a £1 pizza can provide a whole meal, whilst vegetables at the same price only contribute towards part of a meal – it’s clear to see the issue here.

Front-of-pack nutritional labelling

Many of you may be aware of the ‘traffic light’ system on food labels, where foods high in fat, sugar or salt are red, foods low in those nutrients are green, and amber represents the nutrients neither high nor low8.

The Government aim to review evidence on the current ‘traffic light’ system on food to learn how it’s used by manufacturers and consumers1. Currently, this is a voluntary label but with 90% of consumers suggesting it helps them to make better, more informed food choices, could it be a possibility that it’s made mandatory1,8?

Conclusion

As with most things, there are benefits and drawbacks to the government’s new obesity strategy. Whilst it’s good that the government are choosing to focus on reducing obesity in the UK, it’s almost disappointing that it’s taken the Coronavirus pandemic to do so. Hopefully this marks the start for increased improvement in obesity management.

This blog post was written by Lucy Jones, a final year Nutrition undergraduate student at Oxford Brookes University, aiming to become an Associate Nutritionist (ANutr) in 2021. You can find Lucy on Instagram at @lucy.nutritionn, where she posts informative posts and tasty meals.

References:

1. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-obesity-strategy-unveiled-as-country-urged-to-lose-weight-to-beat-coronavirus-covid-19-and-protect-the-nhs

2. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight

3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/people-with-medical-conditions.html

4.https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/sites/default/files/see_it_want_it_buy_it_eat_it_final_report.pdf

5. https://www.beateatingdisorders.org.uk/media-centre/eating-disorder-statistics

6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5700836/

7. https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/national-child-measurement-programme/2018-19-school-year

8. https://www.nutrition.org.uk/healthyliving/helpingyoueatwell/324-labels.html?start=3

9. https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/obesity/

10.  https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight

11.  https://academic.oup.com/jpubhealth/article/40/1/e8/2966188

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