UK experts call for anti-obesity action to cut COVID-19 risk

Supporting people to move towards and maintain a healthier weight may reduce the serious effects of COVID-19, UK experts have concluded in a new report released on Saturday.

Public Health England (PHE), the executive body linked to the government's Department of Health, conclude in their findings that being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of severe illness and death from the novel coronavirus.

The report summarises findings from evidence published during the pandemic on the effects of excess weight and obesity on COVID-19. PHE notes that UK and international evidence suggests that being severely overweight puts people at greater risk of hospitalisation, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission and death from COVID-19, with risk growing substantially as body mass index (BMI) increases.

"The current evidence is clear that being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, as well as from many other life-threatening diseases," said Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE.

"It can be hard to lose weight and even harder to sustain it, which is why people cannot easily do it on their own. Losing weight can bring huge benefits for health – and may also help protect against the health risks of COVID-19. The case for action on obesity has never been stronger," she said.

The report comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is said to be finalising Downing Street plans for an anti-obesity drive. In an interview recently, he asked the British public to make losing weight a goal for the year as part of efforts to combat the deadly coronavirus.

"Losing weight is, frankly, one of the ways that you can reduce your own risks from COVID," said Johnson, who himself has lost over six kilograms in weight since his own hospitalisation with coronavirus earlier this year.

The PHE report notes that current evidence does not suggest that having excess weight increases people's chances of contracting COVID-19. However, the data does show that obese people are significantly more likely to become seriously ill and be admitted to intensive care with COVID-19 compared to those with a healthy BMI, which is under 30.

Excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammatory and immune function. This can impact people's response to infection and increase vulnerability to severe symptoms of COVID-19.

Obese people may be less likely to access healthcare and support, and it is also thought that the novel coronavirus affects other diseases associated with obesity.

The report highlights that supporting people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight may reduce the severe effects of COVID-19 on the population, especially among vulnerable groups that are most affected by obesity.

One study found that for people with a BMI of 35 to 40, risk of death from the coronavirus increases by 40 per cent and with a BMI over 40 by 90 per cent, compared to those not living with obesity.

Other data found that in intensive care units, 7.9 per cent of critically ill patients with COVID-19 had a BMI over 40 compared with 2.9 per cent of the general population.

Almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of adults in England are overweight or obese, with people aged 55 to 74, those living in deprived areas and certain black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) groups more severely affected from the deadly virus, which has claimed over 45,000 lives in the UK.
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