Weekly News Digest: Obesity and COVID-19 - 8th September

NewsWeekly News Digest: Obesity and COVID-19 - 8th September

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.


Food industry in England urged to trim 20% of calories by 2024 (The Guardian)

Public Health England has released nutrition targets for grocery stores, restaurants, and other food sellers to reach within the next four years. These include decreasing calorie counts by 20% for entrees. They have also announced a smaller drop (10%) for like chips, prepared foods, and garlic bread and an even smaller one (5%) for sandwiches, crisps, and savoury snack foods. Finally, they hope for a 10% reduction in calorie counts for children’s meals. However, these targets are voluntary, which historically has not been as effective as mandatory guidelines.

Revealed: how junk food and alcohol brands turned Covid-19 into the world’s largest marketing campaign (The Telegraph)

Major food and beverage companies that produce unhealthy products have been able to use the pandemic for advertising (especially though publicised donations) and government partnerships. As obesity has been shown to worsen the course of COVID-19, this can be viewed as particularly insidious, especially given historical precedent for these industries curtailing public health measures.

Obesity and severe coronavirus, intensive care unit admission (The Guardian Nigeria)

A study of 158 African American COVID-19 patients hospitalised in New Orleans found that obesity is a “significant determinant of disease severity” as well as BMI and lung disease. Patients who required ICU admission (85% of whom were then placed on ventilators) were significantly more likely to be older and to have a higher BMI. Physicians hope that the results of the study encourage the CDC to consider anyone with obesity at higher risk for COVID-19 in its recommendations. Additionally, this article emphasises that the stigmatisation of obesity in African American populations must be replaced with a renewed focus on the underlying determinants of health and existing forms of structural racism.

New post-COVID syndrome ‘MIS-C’ can cause lifelong damage to children’s hearts (Study Finds)

Scientists have identified a new disease named Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children (MIS-C) which occurs after symptomatic or asymptomatic COVID-19 infection. The disease presents with fevers, often gastrointestinal symptoms, and heart problems. Children with obesity or overweight appear to be at a heighten risk for developing this syndrome.

Eating disorder helpline calls rise 97% as government anti-obesity campaign dominates public conversation (Birmingham Live)

Beat, a helpline for those with eating disorders, has been receiving nearly double the number of usual calls as a result of the pandemic and the anti-obesity strategy. Lockdown regulations have reduced access to supermarkets, led to localised shortages of some foods, disrupted treatments, and caused general anxiety. Public health messaging should be adjusted to avoid triggers for those with eating disorders.

Global food prices have been rising during the coronavirus pandemic, hitting food security (CNBC)

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation Food Price Index, food prices have again risen this month, likely due to the devaluation of the dollar, the COVID-19 pandemic, an outbreak of African swine fever among pigs in China, and poor weather conditions. Almost 79% of surveyed small-scale farmers in Africa and Indonesia reported experiencing food and nutritional insecurity, which in turn affects their access to agricultural inputs.

Women are Creating Solutions to the Hunger Crisis (Food Tank)

Hunger (both in general and directly or indirectly caused by the pandemic) affects women and girls disproportionately. This article includes an episode of the podcast “Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg” in which the hosts interview Lisa Kivirsist, a farmer and author who discusses the history of women in American agriculture, and Maureen Muketha, the creator of a food security organisation who discusses the role of Kenyan women in building food security.

How COVID-19 lockdown deprived Nigerians access to food — NBS (Premium Times)

The Nigerian National Bureau of Statistics has been monitoring the impact of the pandemic on food security. 62% of the 1820 consumers surveyed were unable to afford yams and 37% rice, while 72% of farming households could not afford or find inorganic fertiliser. Many agricultural inputs, including chemicals, animals, and labour, have been more difficult to access due to the pandemic, especially among poorer families. The lifting of the lockdown has improved access to many but not all foods, as the economic impact of the pandemic on wages and food prices still lingers.

Covid-19 to hit children, pregnant women the hardest: Experts (Deccan Herald)

September is National Nutrition Month (Poshan Maah) in India, so several programmes to provide education and awareness regarding malnutrition and food security have been implemented. Existing programmes at schools and Aganwadi centres have been stopped due to COVID-19, which is especially detrimental to children in rural areas, and replacement programmes of cash allowances and packaged meals may be an insufficient alternative. Malnutrition due to lack of dietary diversity is of particular concern for both children and pregnant women. Various experts list recommendations for preventing malnutrition.

The effect of Covid-19 on the food system: 'The cost of feeding a child increased by 5%' (News 24)

South Africa has been subject to food price increases due to COVID-19, which has translated into new or worsened food insecurity for almost 9 million children. This is particularly detrimental as malnutrition weakens the immune system, which in turn may increase susceptibility to and disease severity from COVID-19. Research from the Bureau of Food and Agricultural Policy shows that severely disadvantaged families now spend 84% of their monthly budget on food, as opposed to 35% before the lockdown. While the government attempted to distribute packages of food, access was limited and the food in the packages was not of high nutritional quality. The pandemic has emphasised the flaws in the South African food system and necessitated that action be taken.

Doctors are studying why obesity may be tied to serious COVID-19 (The Sydney Morning Herald)

Obesity has been linked to severe disease and death from COVID-19. This may explain why countries with higher obesity rates are experiencing more severe pandemics from COVID-19 then countries with a lower average BMI. Obesity may cause constant inflammation, higher production of some hormones, more entry points for the virus, and difficulties in patient management. Additionally, people with obesity may not be as well protected by vaccines.

Doctors study why obesity may be tied to serious COVID-19 (Valley Central)

Anecdotal evidence that people with obesity are more likely to become severely ill from COVID-19 has been substantiated in a several studies, some of which find linkages even when accounting for common comorbidities. Some researchers suggest that high obesity rates in the US may partially explain the severity of the pandemic there. Several theories about the mechanism by which SARS-CoV-2 exacerbates infection, including reduced lung function, comorbidities, inflammation, difficulties in patient management, or the abundance of a certain receptor on fat cells are still being considered. Additionally, people with obesity tend to mount less of an immune response to vaccines, which could decrease efficacy.

National women’s health week to highlight COVID-19 (Tehran Times)

The last week of September is Women’s Health Week in Iran. The Iranian health ministry has devised a calendar based on the theme of women’s health during coronavirus. Saturday, October 17 will focus on healthy lifestyles and the association of obesity and severe COVID-19.

COVID-19 and obesity: How the pandemic has led to weight gain (UT Physicians)

Many people have experienced weight gain as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic due to working from home, consuming ultra-processed snacks, limited access to exercise facilities, stress, and genetic factors. Obesity increases the risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and other comorbidities. This article emphasises obesity as a disease and lists common treatments, including lifestyle changes and doctors’ visits.

Coronavirus pandemic: Drugs that fight diabetes and obesity may treat Covid-19 (Hindustan Times)

Common weight loss medications in the class GLP-1 may also fight COVID-19, according to preliminary data. These drugs may control blood sugar and reduce systematic inflammation which eliminates some possible causes of worse outcomes for those with COVID and obesity.

Weight gain is new problem of poor in rich nations as Covid puts healthy diet out of reach (The Print)

Healthy eating is expensive- almost one fifth of British adults are unable to regularly afford healthy food, which instead forces people to rely on cheaper ultra-processed foods. While the UK is not the only country with high obesity rates, years of cuts to government spending paired with the COVID-19 associated economic recession are likely to worsen the problem. Obesity has many root causes but is closely tied to socioeconomic status, which is supported by findings of less fruit and vegetable intake among vulnerable population, although the UK government is attempting to mitigate this through the National Food Strategy and expansion of free school meal programmes.

Why obesity worsens COVID-19 (Science)

Several large studies and meta-analyses have noted that people with overweight or obesity are higher risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. This may be due to increased risk of clotting, restricted air flow, reduced immune function and inflammation. Deprivation and ethnicity are linked to the development of obesity. Additionally, people with obesity may avoid hospitals due to fear of stigma and experience more psychological issues. While insufficient data exists regarding dosages for medications commonly used to treat COVID-19, physicians do encourage modest weight loss.

Saudi Arabia to increase efforts in battle against obesity (Gulf News)

One member of the Saudi Arabian Shura Council has recently proposed mandating outpatient clinics to weigh patients during every visit in order to detect overweight and obesity. This is in response to the connection between obesity and COVID-19, as well as healthcare spending on obesity.

Study finds higher rates of student food insecurity during COVID-19

According to a recent study, almost a fifth of university students at the University of California- Berkley have suffered from food insecurity during the pandemic, which is a significant increase. This was much higher among disadvantaged undergraduates (58%) than the general population (22%). Students have had to cope with lost wages, moving costs, equipment for distance learning, so they likely have less money to spend on nutritious food.


Opinion

A doctor's open apology to those fighting overweight and obesity (Houston Chronicle)

In this article, Dr J. David Prologo apologises to his patients for weight bias on behalf of himself and the healthcare profession. He uses a metaphor to convey how this kind of bias would not be tolerated if the patient was suffering from a different medical condition, implying that obesity should be considered a disease. He also advocates for new attitudes toward weight management centred on non-judgmental examinations, open dialogues with patients, and a shift of focus away from personal responsibility.

Fixing nutritional guidelines will also help close COVID-19 racial gaps: Linda D. Bradley (Cleveland.com)

Dr Linda D Bradley, a practicing surgeon at the Cleveland Clinic, notes the higher prevalence of overweight and obesity among minority groups. She suggests that public health measures should be taken to prevent and mitigate obesity, rather than treating individual patients after it develops. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans includes some contradictory information and is insufficient in promoting a healthy diet, especially among those already suffering a chronic disease or those from minority ethnic groups who may have different dietary needs.

Covid-19 Deaths in Malaysia (Code Blue)

This article reviews the range of COVID-19 deaths in Malaysia as well as major risk factors. Men over 40 years old with obesity, heart, or kidney disease are much more likely to become severely ill, require ventilators, and die. While age is still considered the most significant factor, obesity and other chronic illnesses increase risk significantly. Over 80% of Malaysians who died of the coronavirus also had one or more of these underlying conditions.

Advocates fear students will return to school hungry amid uncertainty of food programs (CTV news)

While many Canadian programmes helped provide food for children experiencing food insecurity when schools were closed due to COVID-19, most have ceased now that schools have reopened. However, food insecurity is relatively common in Canada and has likely been exacerbated due to the pandemic. There is some confusion about how and to what extent school nutrition programmes will be run this year and private organisations desperately need donations.

Climate change and its importance for the food industry (IGD)

A report from the Institute of Grocery Distribution recently emphasised climate change as the largest challenge to food systems going forward, which corresponds to the National Food Strategy and a report from the UN environment programme. Despite economic consequences from the pandemic, the UK is taking several steps to mitigate climate change, including a global climate change summit in Glasgow next year and legal requirements to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. More must be done regarding deforestation in the supply chain, particularly as it pertains to soy products.

Iceland’s £1 of free frozen veg for vulnerable families is a small step towards a better food system – others must follow (iNews)

Football player Marcus Rashford has successfully formed a task force with many major food and beverage retailers to curb child poverty. One of these companies, the supermarket Iceland, has begun to give families with Healthy Start Vouchers a bag of frozen vegetables for free. While the author is somewhat sceptical of the move as a marketing strategy, he acknowledges that this does provide a necessary service and should be emulated by other companies.

Gates Foundation is also destroying Africa’s food economy (New Age)

This opinion piece from author, lecturer, and strategic risk consultant F William Engdahl argues that the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa, backed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is extremely detrimental to African food security. He is highly critical of the organisation, noting that the true leadership is not African, the inputs provided are expensive and owned by Monsanto (which then leads to debt and reduced usage of traditional seeds), the project is not transparent enough, farmers are forced to rely on a more global market and the entire enterprise has severely worsened self-sufficiency of smallholder farmers in a manner highly reminiscent of colonialism. A report from Timothy A Wise at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy of Tufts University indicates that countries participating in the programme have seen significant rises in hunger and substantiates Engdahl's claims.

Neoliberalism ‘colonized the palates’ of Mexicans, left high levels of obesity (Mexico News Daily)

The implementation of a neoliberal economic system and specifically the North American Trade Agreement in Mexico led to the influx of cheap, ultra-processed foods. This has led to a major increase in obesity and diabetes, which in turn has exacerbated the effects of the pandemic. President López Obrador urges residents to eat more traditional foods and produce.

Child obesity action 'risks losing its way' (BBC)

According to the National Audit office, not enough work has been done to stem the epidemic of childhood obesity in the past 20 years. Disparities in obesity among BAME and deprived children are increasing, but very few interventions have been created to fill these gaps due to lack of coordination across government departments. Recently, an obesity strategy has been launched in response to COVID, which builds upon work done in 2016 and 2018 but does not evaluate it. Doctors and healthcare experts have questioned the efficacy of this movement.

Opinion: Why nutrition resilience is key to better food systems in the COVID-19 era (Devex)

This article goes beyond simple food security to focus on the role of micronutrients in the food system. Staple foods tend to be high in the basic macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) but low in necessary vitamins and minerals, so it is important for policies to ensure the affordability and accessibility of fruits, vegetables, and animal products. Biofortification, the process of breeding crops specifically to increase nutritional value, is a promising strategy but must be embraced so that regular seeds are replaced by biofortified ones.

How to boost our food security (The Straits Times)

According to Associate Professor Hoe-Han Goh, COVID-19 has highlighted the flaws in food systems across the world and underscore the need to build resiliency. The Malaysian National Food Security Policy integrates multiple groups across work on various related subjects but must continually do even more work in this area.  The strategy hopes to strengthen the agricultural sector to build food security, expand technology, and reduce reliance on imports by taking a systems view and preventing diet-related disease.

A COVID-19 Vaccine Won’t Save Us, but Improving Our Health Can (The Heritage Foundation)

According to Thomas Spoehr, director of the Center for National Defense, obesity has become epidemic in America, with major human and financial consequences. He argues that schools are needed to help children develop healthier behaviours, citing a successful intervention among lower-income children in Arizona, and may integrate these into new lesson plans necessitated by distance learning. It is vital to reduce healthcare spending and ensure that most young adults are eligible for military service.

Food sovereignty: The only solution to the hunger crisis (The Daily Maverick) 

Courtney Morgan and Katherine Brown argue that the limitations of the current food system, as well as other systemic issues throughout South Africa, can be mitigated through the solving of the hunger crisis. COVID-19 has led to a 40% decline in employment and 1 million South Africans being forced into poverty. Limited government provided food aid has faced severe distribution problems and does not contain adequate nutrition. A survey from the National Food Crisis Forum indicates that reliance on short-term relief is insufficient over time, demand for aid is increasing, and it will be difficult if not impossible to meet this need. The article lists several recommendations from that same report to build food sovereignty.