Dr Kate Allen, our Executive Director of Science and Public Affairs, explains why people are talking about obesity in relation to COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic is presenting unprecedented challenges around the world. Apart from the health risks of the coronavirus, the food we eat, the way we work and how physically active we are have all been changed and impacted in ways hardly imaginable only a few months ago. As time goes by we are learning more and more about COVID-19 and it’s now becoming clear that people with certain health conditions, such as diabetes, respiratory disease, heart disease and cancer are more likely to have severe symptoms, and, unfortunately, more likely to die from COVID-19 infection. Many of these conditions are non-communicable diseases (known as NCDs), chronic illnesses often linked to diet and lifestyle.
Recent reports have suggested that obesity is one of the underlying health conditions that can cause a more severe reaction to COVID-19 infection. This is significant given that the majority of adults in England are overweight or obese, and indeed worldwide, around 1.9 billion adults are living with overweight and obesity. Given these extremely high rates of obesity around the globe, it is possible the pandemic could disproportionately impact those who are overweight or obese.
There have been various suggestions as to why excess weight could increase severity of COVID-19 symptoms. Stored fat leads to high levels of inflammation, which can reduce the effectiveness of the immune system, and it’s possible that fat stored around the middle of the body could make the lungs less efficient in the face of a viral infection. But the evidence on obesity and COVID-19 is new and still emerging and the picture will become clearer in the coming days and weeks.
What do we know about obesity and disease?
What we do know for certain is that obesity and overweight increase the risk of at least 12 different types of cancer, evidence that’s based on decades of research from around the world, rigorously analysed by our own independent experts.
While obesity is not something that can be changed overnight, a healthy lifestyle (and that includes a healthy diet and being physically active) will not only lower your risk of cancer, but also ensure your immune system is working at its best. Our Cancer Prevention Recommendations are all designed to help people lead a healthy lifestyle. Evidence shows that people who follow these recommendations are less likely to develop cancer, and also other NCDs.
Long-term impact of COVID-19 and obesity
Unfortunately, the lockdowns which have been introduced in many countries to slow the spread of the virus can make it harder for people to have healthy lifestyles. For example, it can be harder than ever to stay active while confined at home, and the temptation of snacking more when in the house or when feeling stressed could lead people to have unhealthy diets. But being at home with the children can also be a good opportunity to cultivate healthy habits and a greater awareness of good nutrition and the importance of physical activity. To help with this, World Cancer Research Fund has compiled some helpful resources that include tips on staying active during lockdown, entertaining children and making food go further.