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Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine - Barts and The London

Obesity and COVID-19: the role of the food industry

The Food industry must share the blame not only for the obesity crisis, but also for the severity of COVID-19, according to a new BMJ Editorial by researchers at QMUL’s Wolfson Institute.

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Overweight or obese individuals have made up 78% of infections and 62% of hospital deaths from COVID-19 in the UK. Even after adjusting for potential confounders such as 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. The Wolfson Institute researchers say that coronavirus has made tackling the obesity crisis even more urgent, and they are calling on food industries to stop promoting unhealthy food and drink, and on  governments to force these industries to remove the excessive and unnecessary amounts of sugar, saturated fat, and salt added to our food and drinks. Such action  would improve the diet of the entire population and bring even greater benefits for those more socially deprived.

Paradoxically, UK government measures to address unhealthy diets have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak, but during the pandemic an increase in food poverty, disruptions to supply chains, and panic buying may have limited access to fresh foods, tilting the balance towards an even greater consumption of highly processed foods and those with long shelf lives that are usually high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.

The authors say it is now imperative for both the food industry and Government to take maximum action to allow people to eat more healthily, to reduce further deaths from COVID-19.

Tan M, He FJ, MacGregor GA. Obesity and covid-19: the role of the food industry. BMJ 2020.