Excess weight and Covid-19

As Boris Johnson sadly discovered, being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Now this is confirmed in a new Public Health England (PHE) report.

The current evidence does not suggest that having excess weight increases people’s chances of contracting COVID-19. However, the data does show that obese people are significantly more likely to become seriously ill and be admitted to intensive care with COVID-19 compared to those with a healthy BMI.

One study found that for people with a BMI of 35 to 40, risk of death from COVID-19 increases by 40% and with a BMI over 40 by 90%, compared to those not living with obesity. Other data found that in intensive care units, 7.9% of critically ill patients with COVID-19 had a BMI over 40 compared with 2.9% of the general population.

Alarmingly, and I am one of them (overweight), almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or obese*, with people aged 55 to 74, those living in deprived areas and certain black, Asian and minority ethnic groups more severely affected.

Excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammatory and immune function. This can impact people’s response to infection and increase vulnerability to severe symptoms of COVID-19. Obese people may be less likely to access healthcare and support, and it is also thought that COVID-19 affects other diseases associated with obesity.

The report highlights that supporting people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight may reduce the severe effects of COVID-19 on the population, especially among vulnerable groups that are most affected by obesity.

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England, says:

The current evidence is clear that being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19, as well as from many other life-threatening diseases.

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. The case for action on obesity has never been stronger.

The report notes some limitations on evidence to date and highlights the need for more evidence, including research to establish the effect that weight management might have for groups at greater risk of the severe effects of COVID-19.

The report also summarises evidence regarding the nation’s eating and exercise habits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While some data suggests that more people have exercised during lockdown, evidence indicates that the nation’s exercise levels have not increased overall since before the pandemic.

Meanwhile, snack food and alcohol sales in high street shops have increased.

Living with excess weight is a risk factor for a range of chronic diseases, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, many cancers, liver and respiratory disease. Obesity is also associated with reduced life expectancy, and lower quality of life.


Editor’s view: Food manufacturers and government need to look into the food available in major outlets. In some supermarkets it can actually be hard to find anything healthy, and low in sugar and fat, once you get past the vegetables. Weight gain, as we are often told, is simple input/output. Less taken in and more energy expended is the solution. How to make this appealing is the problem. Also better labelling and information is important. It is not just cake and chocolate which is unhealthy. Even olive oil is calorific. With many gyms and swimming pools remaining closed, we also need to consider new ways of exercising.  



*BMI classification BMI Range BMI Category Less than 18.5kg/m2 Underweight 18.5 to <25kg/m2 Healthy weight 25 to <30kg/m2 Overweight 30 to <40kg/m2 Obese 40kg/m2 or more Severely obese

1 Comment

  • JohnG says:

    Interesting article Dawn, thanks.
    When I was about 8 or 9, my father referred to me (and my two brothers) as the ‘Belsen kids’ as we were so skinny. But for the subsequent 60+ years, keeping my weight under control has been difficult. It’s so easy to put on weight and much harder to lose it, and keep it off.
    On BBC Radio 4 Today programme this morning Tom Watson talked about losing 8 stones over two years – and no longer needs medication for diabetes. The very first step on the path to weight loss is to recognise, and then to accept there is a problem, as a basis for doing something about it. Sadly, for the vast majority, it’s a question of calories in and calories out. Yes, exercise can help, but the major cause is too much food!
    Deciding what to eat, and how much, is the challenge; eating less, and better, until it’s embedded as a new habit is very hard work. It’s a change in lifestyle that’s needed.
    I’m pretty sure that most overweight people know it and currently, are content with how things are. It doesn’t really matter why people take the step to lose weight (eg for health reasons, or for image/appearance, etc) – but to be dissatisfied about their weight is what stimulates action.
    I’m not sure to what extent Government action to extol the virtues of a healthy weight will do. Even public opinion, in general, doesn’t have much impact, as we seem to accept it as a way of life – despite being told repeatedly that being obese (one step past overweight) isn’t good – for all the reasons set out in your last paragraph.
    Years ago, an Australian Prime Minister said “Life isn’t meant to be easy”. With Covid and its social and economic impact on our lives, plus all the international inter-governmental squabbling, he was right. But apart from those with complex medical conditions, each of us should be able to manage our own weight.

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