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Food industry must share blame for severity of Covid-19

The food industry shares the blame not only for the obesity pandemic but for the severity of Covid-19 disease and its devastating consequences, argue experts in a new editorial published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) today.


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Selection of unhealthy foods and drink. Credit:happy_lark/
Selection of unhealthy foods and drink. Credit:happy_lark/

In the editorial (Obesity and COVID-19: the role of the food industry), researchers at Queen Mary University of London say coronavirus has made tackling the obesity pandemic even more urgent, and they call on food industries around the world to immediately stop promoting, and governments to force reformulation of, unhealthy foods and drinks.

Covid-19 seems to be yet one more health problem exacerbated by the obesity pandemic. In the UK, individuals who were overweight or obese made up 78% of the confirmed Covid-19 infections and 62% of the Covid-19 deaths in hospitals. After adjusting for potential confounding factors including age, sex, ethnicity, and social deprivation, the risk of critical illness from Covid-19 increased by 44% for those who were overweight, and almost doubled for those with obesity. Similarly, the risk of dying from Covid-19 increased with the severity of obesity, with more than twice the risk in the most obese category. 

With Governmental measures to address unhealthy diets being put on hold due to the Covid-19 outbreak, it is now imperative for Governments and the food industry to take maximum action to get people to eat more healthily to reduce further deaths from Covid-19, say the researchers.

Graham MacGregor CBE - co-author of the study and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Barts and The London Hospital, says: “Unlike most other risk factors identified for Covid-19 such as age, sex and ethnicity – obesity is a modifiable risk factor. This is why governments worldwide must seize the opportunity to help people to eat more healthily and enforce measures to restrict the promotion, marketing, and advertising of unhealthy foods and ensure their reformulation to contain far less salt, sugar, and saturated fat. This would reduce mortality from this vicious virus and many other chronic diseases.”

Monique Tan, co-author of the study and PhD Researcher at Queen Mary says: “Obesity is the major cause of type 2 diabetes which, in itself, is another potentially modifiable risk factor for more severe Covid-19. However, long planned and awaited governmental measures to address this have been put on hold due to the Covid-19 outbreak, at a time when they have never been more necessary. We urge the UK government to implement Action on Sugar’s evidence-based plan, which was presented to the Prime Minister two weeks ago."

Feng He, co-author of the study and Professor of Global Health Research at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine at Queen Mary says: “The world is facing two pandemics. One immediately, Covid-19 and the other a longer-term crisis with obesity. Clear evidence has emerged that the two pandemics interact. This is a major opportunity for governments and the food industry to prevent unnecessary suffering and death worldwide.”

More information

  • Research publication:'Obesity and covid-19: the role of the food industry.' Tan M, He FJ, MacGregor GA. BMJ 2020.
  • Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with obesity and its effects on health. It is working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of excessive calories, sugar, fat, and salt in processed and out-of-home foods, and to take evidence-based action to ensure that we all consume much healthier foods.

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