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Reproduced from the original article published in the Herald Tuesday 8th September


THE pandemic has been the catalyst behind the UK Government’s latest drive to tackle the rising level of obesity across the nation. This latest campaign, which is aimed at helping people lose weight, become more active and eat better, is hoping to make an impact on addressing a growing problem which more than ever poses an escalated threat to individuals’ health.

Since the outbreak of Covid-19, we are seeing a significantly higher level of deaths amongst obese people who contracted the virus. Amongst a mountain of anecdotal evidence, a collaborative study between the University of North Carolina, Saudi Health Council and World Bank has now found a 48 per cent increase in death amongst significantly overweight people who have been afflicted with the coronavirus. The study also reported that the risk of ending up in hospital with Covid-19 increases by 113% for obese people with a 74% increase in their chances of requiring intensive care.

Here in Scotland, we have some of the highest incidences of obesity for men and women among OECD countries. According to Public Health Scotland, an estimated 29% of adults and 14% of children are classified as obese. As the problem continues to get worse and the obese population increases in age, it’s no exaggeration to say that Scotland and the rest of the UK is rushing headlong towards a national healthcare disaster.

Putting aside the very serious threats that are posed by Covid-19, obesity can trigger serious health issues including high blood pressure, Type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, osteoarthritis, sleep apnoea, breathing problems and a wide range of cancers. Severe obesity is responsible for an average life reduction of around 10 years, similar to the impact of lifelong smoking. This reduced lifespan is often not a high quality existence for many obese people due to the above comorbidities and the increased risk from any surgical procedures where complications such as bleeding, clots, chest infections and pressure sores are all more common.

Tackling this chronic problem doesn’t require a complex solution but rather a simple one based on education and awareness. On an individual level, the only effective way to lose weight is to consume fewer calories and to expend more energy. While some can confront this challenge alone, it is not always this straightforward for others. Many will benefit from group support for both reducing their calorie intake and increasing their level of exercise. Advice and support from weight loss experts can also be an effective option.

We need straightforward, accessible consumer information about the impact of diet, calorie intake and density along with further promotion of healthy eating habits. Clearer labelling on foods will certainly help people make heathier choices as will restrictions on junk food advertising. Subsidies and better product placement for healthy options in supermarkets combined with increased taxes on unhealthy foods can also help change consumer behaviour. It’s also important to dispel the myth that fad diets have any long term benefit in reducing weight. Recurrent weight loss and weight gain can actually increase the percentage of body fat.

Further resources to make exercise easier and more accessible, including the opening of more cycle lanes, is another key factor.

Addressing the UK’s chronic level of obesity is a national priority requiring a thorough but simple approach by governments and health agencies. We must seize the opportunity presented by Covid-19 to connect with the wider public and provide people with the required resources to change their lives and create a healthier society.

Dr Sheila O’Neill is a GP and clinical director at Glasgow Medical Rooms