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 has presented 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 a year ago. As time goes by we are still learning more and more about COVID-19 and it’s now 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.
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. Evidence on the link between COVID-19 and obesity is rapidly increasing, with research in the UK suggesting that people with obesity are three times as likely to need intensive care following the development of COVID-19.
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 now with the lockdown easing in the UK and many parts of the world, it’s more important for us all to take on healthy eating and physical activity habits. To help with this, World Cancer Research Fund has launched a new physical activity guide called Living an active life to help us all move more post-lockdown.
- Updated April 2021