Weekly News Digest: Obesity and COVID-19 - 24th August | World Obesity Federation

Weekly News Digest: Obesity and COVID-19 - 24th August

NewsWeekly News Digest: Obesity and COVID-19 - 24th August

We will be compiling stories from credible sources representing all regions of the world, including academic articles, position statements and mainstream news, amongst others. 

If you have signed up to our newsletter, we will be sending this digest to your inbox every Monday during the current pandemic. If you have any stories from your country or discipline, please send through to us at eneeds@worldobesity.org.


COVID-19 deaths are just the beginning of discrepancies in health outcomes by race (USA Facts)

This article reviews American life expectancy by race and noncommunicable diseases, including asthma and obesity. Black children are two times as likely to have asthma than white children and three times as likely as Asian children. While adult obesity rates are higher for all groups shown here than childhood obesity rates, racial disparities are more pronounced for children, as over of a quarter of Hispanic children have obesity as compared to 14% of white children. Experts attribute these trends to higher levels of food insecurity in Black and Hispanic households, exposure to toxic emissions, and access to healthcare.

Hyperglycemia, high or low BMI risk factors for COVID-19 death in people with diabetes (Healio)

Building upon a recent English study that found that people with type I and type II diabetes were more likely to die from COVID-19, a more recent study determined that diabetics with poorly controlled blood sugar, with underweight or with obesity were at highest risk. Data was obtained from the National Diabetes Audit and various health registries to identify 1,604 deaths from type I diabetes and 36,291 deaths from type II diabetes. The researchers described the relationship between obesity and type II diabetes as “complex” but still see it as a modifiable risk factor.

WTO Ties Growing Hunger To Hardship, Not Supply Chain (Law360)

According to the World Trade Organization, the food system has been relatively resilient throughout the pandemic. Hunger is mainly being driven by unemployment and loss of income, so governments must ensure that their residents have access to some sort of pandemic-related aid. Food prices will probably remain low.

Is obesity linked to severe COVID-19 complications and increased risk of death?

Recent studies have linked overweight and obesity to worse cases of COVID-19, especially among younger patients. Obesity is a concern across the world, including lower- and middle-income countries. As obesity may inhibit the immune response, it is important for people to receive sufficient physical activity, have access to safe spaces for exercise, consume more produce and fewer ultra-processed foods, and receive education on the risks of obesity.

Obesity increases risk of Covid-19 death by almost 50%, study suggests (The Independent)

A study from the University of North Carolina indicates that people with obesity (defined as a BMI of over 30) were 113% more likely to require hospital admission, 74% more likely to require ICU admission, and 48% more likely to die. The lead study author advocates for healthy diets and effective nutritional policies. Additionally, vaccines may be less effective in those living with overweight and obesity, although this is only a theory based on data from previous vaccines and not on data from the North Carolina study.

The COVID Comorbidity Crisis (Project Syndicate)

COVID-19 may cause long-term heart damage in many survivors, which then would increase rates of noncommunicable diseases. Preventing these chronic conditions may in turn prevent people from suffering severe illness and therefore should be a current priority along with preventing the spread of the virus. The article focuses on obesity, using the UK obesity response as a positive example of anti-obesity initiatives and Nigeria as a positive example of affordable home care to the elderly.

In Sudan, Diabetics Face Increased Risks Amid Pandemic (Direct Relief)

65% more Sudanese residents are experiencing food insecurity this year, which may be extremely dangerous for those with diabetes. Direct Relief interviewed Dr Oman Babiker of the Sudanese Childhood Diabetes Association on their podcast about food insecurity in Sudan. Loss of income due to COVID-19 prevents families from affording sufficient and healthy food, insulin (although some clinics provide free medications), and transportation costs. Additionally, some clinics are closed due to COVID-19.

Obesity increases risk of Covid-19 death by 48%, study finds (The Guardian)

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that patients with obesity (BMI greater than 30) were 113% more likely to be admitted to the hospital, 75% more likely to require intensive care and 48% to die from COVID-19. Data was obtained through a meta-analysis of other studies. The article also outlines the mechanisms by which obesity may cause these worse outcomes and highlights that vaccines may be less effective in people with obesity.

Virus-wracked Mexico struggles to get in shape (Manilla Bulletin)

Many Mexicans are adopting exercise routines in an attempt to lose weight due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as high rates of noncommunicable disease (including obesity) may explain high death rates in Mexico. While many states are taking measures to curb the obesity epidemic, including front-of-pack labelling and prohibiting the sale of unhealthy foods to minors, gyms have not reopened. Additionally, more people are consuming processed foods and exercising less as a result of quarantine.

Poor Glycemic Control & Obesity Combine to Worsen COVID-19 Outcomes (COVID-19 Hub)

In response to anecdotal reports of high BMI as a risk factor for more severe COVID-19, Dr Alemán of the Veteran’s Association New York Harbor Healthcare System found that poor blood sugar control was a risk factor for worse outcomes. This effect was magnified in patients with both obesity and poor glycaemic control. The mechanism by which this occurs is unknown, although some speculate that it may involve the inflammatory response. More studies on this topic and others surrounding obesity, blood sugar control, and COVID-19 are needed.

It’s not just old people: obese young adults are ending up critically ill in hospital with Coronavirus (The Medical Journal of Australia)- preprint

This preprint reviews the evidence linking obesity to poor outcomes from COVID-19 through studies done across the world. Obesity as a risk factor is more important in young adults. Additionally, this is a modifiable risk factor, so the pandemic should encourage governments to address the obesity epidemic.

Empowering Communities to Feed Themselves in the Time of COVID-19 (Next City)

In response to insufficient and unhealthy food aid provided by New York City and the closure of other food charities, president Gail Sharbaan (Rivers Run Community Garden President) wanted to provide food sovereignty to her community through Milk Crate Gardens. Volunteers distributed milk crates full of soil from a terminated programme at the John F Kennedy Airport and provided education materials for underserved New Yorkers to grow their own food. SPROUT NOLA in New Orleans also provides gardening, farming, and ranching classes for aspiring growers and has maintained its own community gardens to provide healthy food during the pandemic, as well as space for its growers to sell their products. Acta Non Verba in Oakland, California gives children the necessary inputs and education to sell their own food and then sell it for profit, which the children keep. The programme is still being delivered online.

Study: Some teens are at higher risk of complications if exposed to COVID-19 (WRAL)

Teenagers with obesity, especially those who also have additional chronic illnesses, are at higher risk for getting very sick if they contract COVID-19. All teenagers and their parents should maintain a 6-foot distance from each other and wear masks to reduce transmission.

COVID-19's economic fallout expands food insecurity (Aberdeen News)

Experts predict that over 54 million Americans may become food insecure as a result of the economic consequences of the pandemic. People who are dealing with food insecurity tend to have less choice in their diets and are therefore at higher risk for noncommunicable diseases, including obesity, as well as increased stress. People from disadvantaged groups are more likely to have obesity, contract and die from COVID-19, and live in food deserts. Several charities are attempting to alleviate the impacts of food insecurity on households and families.

Now, obesity threat in kids weighs in on parents' minds (Decclan Herald)

Parents are very concerned about keeping their children active and healthy during lockdown, especially with the closures of many recreational areas. Children are eating more unhealthy foods, spending more time on screens, and exercising less, which in turn puts them at risk for several chronic conditions, including overweight and obesity. Experts recommend regular healthy meals for children, making sure they go outside, and keeping them active indoors.

How coronavirus has led to a UK boom in community food growing (The Guardian)

Volunteers were able to create a community garden in Cambridge. The garden was able to provide healthy food to food-insecure individuals, promote sustainable farming practices, and reduce social isolation among volunteers. Many other organisations in different parts of England have developed similar gardens to ensure those utilising food banks have access to fresh produce.

Explainer: Diabetes and Covid-19 (The Star)

Data shows that over half of deaths from COVID-19 in Kenya can be attributed to underlying non-communicable diseases. 16% of total deaths occurred among Kenyans with diabetes, whose risk of intensive care admission doubled compare to those without. This phenomenon can be explained by immune dysfunction, higher blood sugars creating a better environment for the virus, and inflammation.

What Is Magical About The Surgical Management Of Obesity? (American Council on Science and Health)

A study comparing 15 patients who lost weight after bariatric surgery with 18 those who were able to lose weight through diet alone found no significant differences between metabolic function or needed medication to control blood glucose, although two surgery patients had complications. Therefore, either of these methods is effective in controlling type II diabetes. However, patients who underwent surgery found the procedure easier to comply with and were satiated more quickly.

COVID-19: how the lockdown has affected the health of the poor in South Africa (The Conversation)

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing income inequalities in South Africa, which in turn influences if people can afford healthy foods. A survey found that low-income households experienced 6 times as much health inequality during the pandemic than they did in 2017 (with Black South Africans more likely to be low-income than white South Africans). This could be due to systemic disadvantages, extremely limited access to quality healthcare, hunger, and income inequality. Policies to limit inequity, including a universal healthcare system and the National School Nutrition Programme, are desperately needed.

UAE has learnt from Covid to boost food security: Sheikh Mohammed (Khaleej Times)

Sheikh Mohammed of the United Arab Emirates has announced that food and water security is a major priority going into the post-pandemic era. Government officials will review national food reserves, provide additional funding for agricultural research, and create trade partnerships with others to ensure food security. Recent initiatives include a food security law passed at the end of March to limit distribution issues in crises, the development of the National System for Sustainable Agriculture, and the importation of 4,500 cows.

Othering fatness: Medical professionals’ negative bias towards fat people jeopardises the quality of care (Mail and Guardian)

This article discusses weight stigma in healthcare, detailing the perspectives of two people who have grown up with overweight and obesity and providing alarming statistics regarding bias of healthcare workers. It questions if obesity does contribute to worse outcomes from COVID-19 or if weight stigma and weight cycling are the true culprits, like dietitian and author Christy Harrison claims are behind obesity comorbidities.

Research Finds Link Between COVID-19 Deaths, Morbid Obesity (University of Alabama News Center)

Researchers in Alabama reported that very high BMI may account for up to 9% of variation in COVID-19 fatalities. Areas with particularly high obesity rates also tend to have higher death rates. This study was notable in that it took place outside of hospitals and supports previous obesity research.

Inflammation: the key factor that explains vulnerability to severe COVID (University of Manchester)

This article goes into depth about the impact of inflammation during infection with COVID-19. Many patients with severe disease experience an overreactive immune response caused by cell products named cytokines. Too much glucose in the bloodstream, which can be caused by obesity, increases the amount of ACE-2 receptors (which Sars-CoV-2 uses to enter cells), improves viral replication, and may allow the virus to survive and thrive inside white blood cells. Additionally, elderly people have more cytokines and fewer white blood cells that can target viruses than younger people and men tend to have more ACE2 receptors than women.

Survey to examine Halifax food system gaps, strengths amid pandemic (The Chronicle Herald)

The Halifax Food Policy Alliance and the Halifax Regional Municipality have launched an online survey to determine successes and needs of the local food system, which will then be used to develop the JustFOOD: Action Plan for the Halifax region. This will give support to anecdotal reports of increased food insecurity and buying food directly from farms.

England's anti-obesity fight ‘at risk’ after Matt Hancock closes health agency (The Guardian)

UK Health secretary Matt Hancock has decided to disband Public Health England but has yet to declare who will take over the Better Health Campaign and associated anti-obesity initiatives. As this plan was intended to protect the public before the arrival of the COVID-19 second wave, many politicians and public health officials are worried about the health system and sceptical of the government’s commitment to tackling obesity.


Transforming our food culture — a matter of life and death (The Hill)- opinion

COVID-19 infection is worsened by underlying diet-related diseases like obesity, which is more common in underserved populations. It is recommended that regulations be placed on food advertising (as the majority goes towards unhealthy foods and targets young people), dynamic pricing be implemented so that low-income families can afford healthy food with the difference being made up by higher prices for higher-income families, and cooking from home become more normalised. This article was written by Nancy E. Roman, president and CEO of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America.

Weight gain and obesity ‘exacerbated’ by pandemic, Tayside health chief fears (The Courier.co.uk)

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, health workers have been less able to offer weight management services, which is concerning as overweight and obesity appears to be a risk factor for severe disease. Additionally, residents have spent more time in their homes and consumed more comfort food. More must be done to address overweight and obesity as restrictions loosen, especially among those from deprived areas, as well as mental health services.

The EU is fuelling hunger in Africa (The New Arab) 

According to author Muhammed Magassy (Gambia's National Assembly Member and the Economic Community of West African States' member of Parliament), the Common Agricultural Policy unfairly subsidises products from European Union, which undermines local farmers in developing countries, in addition to advantageous trade agreements. While there were some proposals to institute Community-Supported Agricultural schemes in Europe as a response to the pandemic, any changes have been delayed until 2022. Additionally, Europe may place limits on the amount of food that can be exported, which could lead to massive food insecurity. Finally, Europe should repeal its ban on palm oil, as this disproportionately affects farmers in lower- and middle-income countries and incentivises further environmental strain.

Boris Johnson Focusing On Obesity Over Women And BAME People Because He's Obese, Says Labour MP (HuffPost)

According to MP Jess Phillips, the UK government is focussing on obesity as a cause of COVID-19 because Boris Johnson has a personal stake in the issue when it should be mitigating the effects of the crisis on women and BIPOC populations. She advocates for more women’s perspectives in government.

Investing in school nutrition would fight hunger, racism—and COVID-19 (Fast Company)

COVID-19 has caused major economic disruption and by extension worsened existing food security in America, which will become even more apparent now that unemployment benefits have expired. Black and Latinx children are significantly more likely to be food insecure than white children, to see more fast food marketing, and to develop diet-related diseases like obesity. The Eat Real organisation has partnered with school districts to improve school menus and give children sufficient healthy food.

‘HEIs can spark agri food systems transformation’ (Manilla Times)

As COVID-19 has disrupted food supply chains experts suggest that HEIs (Higher Education Institutions, like universities) should be encouraged to do research into improving agricultural resiliency and sustainability in the Philippines. Universities should partner with the public and private sector to share ideas and funding. Experts Dr Glenn Gregorio and Dr Rico Ancog give a list of recommendations to maximise the potential of researchers and faculty members.

Why Obesity Drugs Matter in the Fight Against COVID-19 (Daily Wealth)

In this piece, market analyst David Lashment briefly explains that, as SARS-CoV-2 enters cells through ACE2 receptors which are found on both blood cells and blood vessels, it can destroy blood vessels, which then can cause blood clots in vital organs. This is supported by two studies in which ventilated patients who were given blood thinners had a significantly lower risk of death than those who were not. As a result, investing in blood thinners and anti-obesity drugs may be extremely profitable.

Tax fatty foods to tackle child obesity, says think tank (The Independent)

A report from the Institute for Public Policy Research stated that childhood obesity rates should be decreased from the currently level of 20% back to less than 2% in order to save lives from COVID-19 and money for the NHS. They suggest an 8% tax on high calorie foods to achieve this goal, as Mexico and Hungary have achieved success in reducing junk food consumption through similar taxes. This may provide incentives to reformulate products. Money from the tax should be used to fund a healthy food subsidy scheme for children who receive free school meals. Experts praise the report as a whole and call for cooperation between actors as well as emphasis on obesity prevention.

Lessons learned during COVID-19 (New Food Magazine)

While the UK food system has been fairly adaptable and resilient throughout the course of the pandemic, the government is ultimately responsible for making sure residents have enough affordable food and controlling obesity. Emily Miles, Chief Executive of the Food Standards agency, advocates for interdepartmental collaboration within the UK government.

Is a Plant-Based Diet the Answer to Obesity? (Feast Magazine)

Some studies have linked vegetarianism and veganism to lower rates of obesity and weight loss. While many people report feelings of hunger when removing animal products from their diet, this can be mitigated by increasing portion sizes and eating more plant-based proteins. However, all plant-based food is not created equal- there is plenty of vegan junk food, so it is still important to pay attention to calorie content.

Battling the 'Quarantine 15': Experts fear COVID-19 weight gain could lead to health complications, weak immune systems (ABC News)

Doctors are concerned about the worsening of the obesity epidemic as a by-product of COVID-19 lockdown, especially as high blood sugar levels will decrease immune function. Many people’s diets are changing for the worse due to the stress of the pandemic, with increased consumption of ultra-processed foods, alcohol, and takeaways. People should do their best to eat healthy, minimally processed and nutrient dense food to optimise the gut microbiome and take care of the immune system.

Death Rate Is Alarming (The Tribune)

The second wave of COVID-19 in the Bahamas has already claimed more lives than the first wave did. As 71.6 of the population has overweight and 43.7% has obesity, the Bahamas are at a very high risk for severe disease and the author believes this justifies continued strict lockdown measures.

Pandemic Has Exposed ‘Serious Weaknesses’ In The UK’s Food System (Kam City)

While consumers expect the food system to provide more healthy options as a result of the pandemic, industry experts question the ability to deal with long-term effects in the food and drink sector. It is recommended that companies focus more on their social responsibility to the public, take measures to ensure their products and messaging are not contributing to the obesity epidemic, return to local supply chains, build resilience, and prepare for permanent changes to the food system.

Covid-19: Health experts worried obesity is on the rise (The New Times)

Work from home, poorer diets, worsened mental health, lower incomes, and less exercise due to the COVID-19 pandemic may contribute to rising obesity rates across the world. People with obesity are more likely to have severe illness if they do contract COVID-19. Florence Uwamwezi, creator of the Slim n’ Fit obesity organisation gathers both women living with overweight and at-risk girls for a bimonthly walk as well as daily outdoor training sessions and specialist talks. Obesity in Rwanda grew 5% between 2010 and 2015.

My sister doesn't have COVID-19, but I'm scared she won't make it out of 2020 (USA Today)

In this article, author Stacey Torres of the University of California, San Francisco reflects upon the impact the pandemic has had on her sister, who is living with obesity among other physical and mental health problems. The loss of in-person appointments led to increased isolation, reduced mobility, and increased depression for her sister, which has in turn led to weight gain and dramatically decreased her quality of life. Torres concludes that society at large is willing to sacrifice the lives of low-income, disabled, elderly, minority, and immigrant populations but notes that individuals still show kindness.

PBH reinforces important role fruits and vegetables for Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (Blue Book Services)

The Produce for Better Health Foundation provided expert opinions to the USDA to help them develop updated dietary guidelines. The Foundation emphasised that all forms of fruit and vegetables should be encouraged, produce should be introduced into the diet early in life, and public health messaging should focus on the increased consumption of fruits and vegetables. More interventions should be identified through the social-ecological model to encourage consumption by focusing on how they can be easily added to common meals. Finally, behavioural science should be taken into account on how best to change habits.

Weighing Children in School: No Good Can Come of It (Medscape) 

According to Dr Yoni Freedhoff, expanding the National Child Weight Management Programme by weighing children twice this coming school year will likely lead to weight discrimination among peer without providing any noticeable benefits for children or their parents. Widespread education on obesity risks has reached most families already and parents have probably already noticed weight gain in their children. Instead, programmes should prohibit advertising to children, increase nutritional standards for cafeteria meals and distribute them despite COVID-19 related barriers, provide home economics classes in schools and community centres, create taxes for sugary drinks to fund obesity programmes, and improve front-of-pack labelling.

Food security must not lull us into complacency (The Tribune)

While India’s food system has been so far able to feed the majority of the population through aid programmes, there are some flaws that will need to be addressed long term. Loss of harvests due to COVID-19, reduced profits for farmers, lack of migrant labour, supply chain disruptions, labour shortages, and limited availability of water and land for agriculture. The author, who is the Assistant Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, advocates for specific policies in labour-surplus and labour deficient states. These measures will help produce the requisite amounts of food while being sustainable.

Another Misguided ‘War’ on Obesity (Scientific American)

Author and Professor Chin Jou is sceptical of Boris Johnson’s Better Health Campaign. While there does appear to be a correlation between obesity and COVID-19, and American obesity rates are high and only increasing, stigmatising advertisements devalue people living with obesity. This contributes to bullying and the perception of obesity as a lifestyle choice instead of a complex disease. Studies have shown that these kinds of advertisements are ineffective in promoting weight loss, so they should instead be replaced with positive messaging about the health benefits of healthy behaviours paired with interventions to tackle the socioeconomic determinants of obesity and training for healthcare workers.

Press Releases

People with TB and obesity are high-risk populations for Covid-19 – study (BizNews) 

Broad reach, a digital health technology and consulting company, conducted a study of 1.6 million suspected COVID-19 cases in South Africa. They found that people with obesity, HIV/AIDS, high blood pressure, diabetes, tuberculosis, asthma, heart disease, and COPD were at highest risk of having a suspected case. While the study did not take confirmed cases into account, community healthcare workers were used to screen patients. This information will inform South African health policies regarding screening, testing, and treatment prioritisation.