Campaigners present UK government with plans tackling obesity amid coronavirus pandemic

A group of health campaigners has delivered a plan to the UK government which it claims will offer a direct strategy in response to a review of how obesity, ethnicity, income and gender can affect the impact of the coronavirus on people’s health. Neill Barston reports.

As the Action On Sugar and Action on Salt initiatives noted, there has been increasing evidence that obesity is an independent risk factor for more severe illness and death from covid-19.

Consequently, its experts, who have led a sustained campaign across the food sector including a drive for reducing sugar intake within confectionery and baked goods, have called on the nation to know their BMI numbers to identify their risk and for the government to improve advice, access and treatments at scale and pace.

The government-linked Public Health England organisation had tasked confectioners and the baked-good sector with reducing sugar in confectionery by 20%, but with the timeframe now elapsed, the latest results on the issue have yet to be published. The last available data for 2018 showed that manufacturers had, with a few notable exceptions, failed to even meet a first-year target of reducing sugar by 5%. Consequently, health campaigners have called for such initiatives to be made compulsory rather than advisory as they presently are.

The Action On Sugar/Action on Salt plan plan presented to government has advised on guidance for identifying modifiable risk factors, improve understanding of the many causes of obesity, increase access and funding for bariatric surgery, as well as advising on access and funding for evidence-based weight loss support.

In addition, campaigners said they are urging ministers to act on previous government commitments to tackle the obesity crisis that the nation faced prior to COVID-19, and will continue to face if government continue to dither, which don’t place sole responsibility on the individual.

According to the groups of experts, there are a range of preventative measures that can be taken in relation to obesity. These include ensuring only healthy products are advertised and promoted, adopting fiscal measures to promote healthy food (with income ring fenced to subsidise treatments), as well as making nutrition labelling mandatory. The group also called for a new independent food watchdog to be created.

As the groups explained, of the COVID-19 risk factors that can be modified, obesity and the degree of control of type 2 diabetes are by far the most important. However, with a current lack of access to health services due to the pandemic, and governmental measures to address obesity currently on hold, at a time when they have never been more necessary, those living with obesity are being failed.

For most people, the Body Mass Index (BMI) is a relatively straightforward and convenient way of assessing your own weight12. Evidence shows that one in three (28.7%) British adults are classified as having obesity, and one in eight of those has severe obesity (3.6% of all adults), one of the highest rates in the world. However, there is no national programme to help individuals self-identify their weight status13. If someone’s BMI suggests they are living with an increased risk of poor health due to their obesity then it’s imperative that there is trusted guidance available, with easy access to weight management services and to affordable, healthy food.

Graham MacGregor CBE – Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Queen Mary University of London says:

“With data showing that 78% of coronavirus infections and 62% of hospital deaths occur in overweight or obese individuals – with Boris Johnson himself is reportedly to be concerned about his own weight with an estimated BMI of 36 – the government has a moral duty to intervene. Obesity is also the main underlining 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 unbelievably put on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak, at a time when they have never been more necessary.”

Katharine Jenner – Campaign Director of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, Queen Mary University of London added that the “British people are being failed by the food environment within which we currently live.”

She added: “Although there is an element of personal responsibility in both the treatment and prevention of obesity, this can only be achieved with equitable access to healthy, affordable food – this is far from a reality. It is even more critical than ever for the food & drink industry, including the hospitality sector, to stop flooding us with unhealthy food options to keep us healthy – both now and in the future.”

Holly Gabriel, registered Nutritionist and Nutrition Campaigner at Action on Sugar, added that individuals knowing their BMI is one way of identifying weight status, and noted that recent evidence has shown that if you are living with obesity and you do develop COVID-19 you are likely to become more unwell.

How to Calculate Your BMI

· Take your weight in kilograms

· Measure your height in meters and square it

· Divide your weight by your height squared

A healthy BMI is 18.5 to 25. Over 25 is defined as ‘overweight’ with more than 30 generally considered to be ‘living with obesity’.

This measure is not always definitive, and sometimes other measures are used. These include waist circumference and the waist-hip ratio (defined as the waist circumference divided by the hip circumference which provides an indication of the distribution of fat on the body).

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