COVID-19 and the urgency of addressing the obesity challenge

Posted On: 7th September 2021

It has been over a year and half since the COVID-19 outbreak began, and a major lesson learned from the pandemic is the need to make obesity a public health priority. While elderly people and those with immune disorders were quickly recognised as the main groups at increased risk for severe COVID-19 outcomes, several studies have shown that obese and overweight individuals are also at high risk of developing severe illness due to COVID-19.

Obesity is one of the most prevalent health conditions among hospitalised COVID-19 patients. Scientific evidence shows that obese people (including young adults) hospitalised with COVID-19 experience substantially higher rates of severe outcomes, such as requiring intensive care treatment, mechanical ventilation, and death. According to the World Health Organization, the European Region is the most affected by obesity-related morbidity and mortality. The pandemic has reinforced the need to prioritise the fight against obesity, which is recognised in the European Programme of Work 2020–2025 of the WHO Regional Office for Europe.

The impact of COVID-19 on obesity

Obesity is known to significantly impair the immune system’s ability to fight against diseases. Several potential mechanisms explain severe COVID-19 outcomes in obese and overweight people, including compromised lung function and increased levels of chronic inflammation. As the Obesity Action Coalition notes, obesity results in fat in the abdomen pushing up on the diaphragm, which can cause restricted airflow to the lungs and shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. This can become even worse after contracting COVID-19, and the situation is made more complicated by comorbidities associated with obesity, such as diabetes, obstructive sleep apnoea and cardiovascular disease, which are also contributing factors to the worst COVID-19 outcomes.

The socio-economic impact of the pandemic may further increase obesity levels and make it more difficult for the overweight and obese to lose weight. Self-isolation can lead people to use delivery services and consume fast food more than before, while increased stress can also result in greater consumption of unhealthy processed food due to comfort and night eating. Studies have shown that stress can disrupt the sleep schedule, which in turn may change eating habits due to an increase in hunger hormones. This can lead people to consume food late at night and/or eat more throughout the day.

Addressing the obesity challenge

So far, the EU and the UK have focused their efforts on preventing obesity and overweight via strategies focused on healthy eating or consumer information. We have seen this in the European Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy and the British Government’s legislation to restrict the promotion of products high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). Yet, such policies are insufficient in addressing the complexities of obesity and in offering solutions to those that are already obese.

Public policy needs to turn its attention to these people, millions of whom are already struggling with being obese or overweight and face an increased risk of severe illness and death owing to COVID-19. This shift in the efforts to tackle obesity requires a focus on available solutions. There is increasing scientific evidence on the beneficial impacts of total diet and meal replacement products (TDR and MRP) for obese and overweight people.

Some well documented benefits of TDR programmes include fast weight loss – of between 1.3 and 1.5 kg per week – and weight loss maintenance of more than 10% of initial body weight . Moreover, recent studies have shown that TDR diets can result in the prevention and remission of type 2 diabetes as well as improvement in other obesity comorbidities, such as osteoarthritis.

An MRP diet plan also offers significantly better weight loss compared to a food-based diet plan (rates of up to 17 kg in 24 weeks). In addition, the benefits of using MRPs for weight loss include improvements in a number of health-related variables during weight maintenance, such as inflammation and oxidative stress, two key factors recently shown to underlie most common chronic diseases.

TDRs and MRPs from responsible manufacturers provide a safe, reliable and cost-effective solution in tackling the skyrocketing obesity rates in Europe. Against the background of the alarming link between COVID-19 and obesity, it is absolutely necessary that policymakers and professionals from the healthcare sector gain a better understanding of this option.

More on COVID-19 and obesity can be found here.

Find out more about TDRs via this link.

More information on MRPs is available here.