ACCORDING to the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UK has the highest level of obesity in Europe. More than one in four adults in England (28 per cent) are obese, defined as having a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or above, and a further 36 per cent are classed as overweight. Obesity Statistics – House of Commons Library (parliament.uk) Data from Public Health England suggests that almost one third (31.2 per cent) of children aged 2 to 15 are obese.
People carrying excess weight generally have an increased risk of mortality, hypertension, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea, and many cancers. NHS England released figures this week showing that hospital admissions last year included over one million ‘obesity-related problems’.
Covid-19 has put a new focus on obesity. The New York Post reports that countries with high obesity rates, including both the UK and the USA, have suffered badly with Covid deaths when compared with countries with less obesity, such as Vietnam. It is estimated that 80 per cent of all Covid deaths have been people who were overweight or clinically obese.
Obese people are statistically much more likely to contract Covid-19, more likely to be hospitalised, admitted to intensive care, and to suffer greater morbidity and mortality. The relative risk due to increased BMI is particularly notable in people younger than 40 years and of black ethnicity.
People who are obese are likely to face reductions in the effectiveness of any vaccines through weakened immune response. They are also said to be more likely to transmit the virus than the non-obese.
The government’s response to Covid -19 is likely to have increased obesity rates thanks to lockdowns and disruptions of normal life. The requirement to work from home has brought about more dysfunctional behaviour, isolation, excess drinking and snacking. ‘Binge-watching’ and ‘screen time’ have increased, while gyms and other leisure activities have been closed, and organised sport cancelled. In the US, a 2020 survey found that over half of adults interviewed had gained weight during the pandemic, 10 per cent of them by more than 50 pounds.
The ‘Health at every size – Fat acceptance’ and ‘body positivity’ movements proclaim that it is no shame to be obese and that no one should be stigmatised for failing to meet an arbitrary physical type. The ‘fat but fit’ meme has been widely circulated on social media in recent years, but its premise is dangerous and false. For the majority, obesity is a major health hazard.
Social media, TV, film, and ‘influencers’ are partly responsible for the social acceptance of obesity, due to their increasing use of overweight women as role models.
There are other matters that contribute to rising obesity levels. High fat, sugar and salt laden processed foods have never been cheaper or more available, now with deliveries at almost any time of the day or night. Shift work is widespread leading to erratic sleeping and eating habits.
Not everyone cooks, and family meals ‘round the table’ are no longer the norm. Jobs, where people still have them, are increasingly sedentary, but few stop to eat a ‘proper meal’. Physical activity levels are markedly lower than in all previous generations.
The prevalence of individuals with obesity is at an all‐time high and increasing across the globe. This is a pandemic that warrants greater attention.