People who are overweight or obese are at a significantly higher risk of hospitalisation or death from coronavirus, a government review has concluded.
The stark findings come as Boris Johnson has called for a “summer of weight loss”, with ministers expected soon to unveil plans to address the UK’s obesity problem.
In a review of existing studies, experts at Public Health England (PHE) have concluded that people who are overweight, with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 to 29.9, are at a higher risk of poor outcomes and hospitalisation if they contract coronavirus.
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Having a BMI of between 30 and 35 increases the risk of dying with Covid-19 by 40 per cent, while having a BMI above 40 nearly doubles the risk in comparison with those who are a healthy weight, researchers found.
The review found that, while just 2.9 per cent of the population have a BMI of 40 or higher, they account for nearly 8 per cent of critically ill patients in intensive care units.
While weight has no discernible impact on the risk of contracting coronavirus, excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammatory and immune function, the report said.
“I think this has really brought to the fore that obesity is not just the chronic health problem we’ve always known, but actually is now a more acute issue for people who have Covid,” said Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford, who peer-reviewed the report.
Prof Jebb said “every kilo” people lost was going to reduce their risk of being admitted to hospital with coronavirus, describing it as “very clear” that the risks are more or less linear.
Even for those who are only slightly overweight – with a BMI of 25 – it is “worth doing something”, Prof Jebb said, adding: “If you’re over (BMI) 25, those are the people who ought to be trying to lose weight.
“And if your BMI is already in the healthy range, you need to be avoiding weight gain.”
The study pointed out that snack food and alcohol supermarket sales have risen, possibly reflecting the fact shops, pubs and cafes were closed during lockdown and people turned to snacking and drinking at home.
Despite increases in sales of bikes and exercise equipment, overall activity levels appear to have dropped during the pandemic, it said.
“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,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE.
“The case for action on obesity has never been stronger.”
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, professor John Newton, the director of health improvement at Public Health England, said there were now clear risks associated with being overweight and contracting the coronavirus.
“You’re more likely to be admitted to hospital, more likely to need treatment on an intensive care unit, we also know that it does increase your risk of death and it contributes to the various disparities we’ve seen,” he said on Saturday.
“As people get older, there is more obesity and the outcome is worse from Covid as you get older. People who live in poorer communities, obesity is significantly associated with that and obesity will explain some but not all of the affects of deprivation on the outcome of Covid.
“And also between different ethnic groups – obesity is substantially different between ethnic groups in this country and that may explain some but again not all of the difference between outcomes in ethnic groups.”
Asked whether obesity was the single most important factor associated with the virus, he replied: “That’s probably overstating it – we know that being overweight and living with obesity, if you get coronavirus, makes the illness worse.”
On Friday, the prime minister called for a “summer of weight loss” ahead of a possible second wave of infections in winter, revealing that he himself had shed “a stone and a bit” since being admitted to hospital with coronavirus.
Ministers are widely expected to soon unveil an anti-obesity drive in the UK, with care minister Helen Whately also describing obesity is “one of the greatest if not the greatest health challenge we face as a country”.
Half of the nation’s adults are overweight and one child in five is obese when they leave primary school, Ms Whately told BBC Breakfast on Friday.
Public health groups have welcomed reported curbs on the “relentless advertising and promotion of unhealthy food” expected in the proposals, but doctors warned “firm and sustained” government efforts were needed to tackle obesity, following empty political promises in the past.
“There is overwhelming evidence that junk food advertising works,” said Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance. “So when adverts for unhealthy food and drinks dominate prime-time TV and social media, while the nation struggles to maintain a healthy weight, this is a problem.”
She believes the “incentive to the food industry to reduce sugar, fat and salt from their products” would “benefit everyone”.
The British Medical Association’s Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said “successive governments have shied away from effective regulation for far too long”, adding: “We must have a comprehensive and well-resourced strategy to ensure that from now on the health of the nation is made a priority.”
Tam Fry. chair of the National Obesity Forum, also believes the proposals are not enough and that “an across-the-board approach to everything in life which affects obesity” is needed.
But ministers faced a backlash from the food and advertising industries, adding another layer in the battle between public health and the economy.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) called the proposals a “slap in the face” to an industry already struggling in the pandemic, with its boss Tim Rycroft saying: ”We could see a ban on promotions of food such as mustard and mint sauce, days before the launch of the chancellor’s Eat Out to Help Out campaign.
“We could have the Great British Bake Off with no cake adverts allowed.”
Advertising Association chief executive, Stephen Woodford, added: “We think the government should be focused on things that work, rather than things that are headline-grabbing initiatives that in effect industry pays for. Paying for it means that jobs go and prosperity is harmed.”
Additional reporting by PA