Obesity can significantly increase the chances of severe outcomes for patients with coronavirus disease (COVID-19). To raise awareness of this linkage and to discuss the latest academic research of the topic, WHO/Europe organized a virtual expert meeting on 22 October 2020. It brought together representatives of several Member States of the WHO European Region with experts to share resources on data collection, epidemiology and the best policy approaches to address obesity in the context of COVID-19.

Noncommunicable diseases and COVID-19: a bad combination

COVID-19 has been detected in over 185 countries globally, with more than 40 million confirmed cases and more than 1 million deaths. The latest data shows that obesity, one of the main risk factors for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), has a clear connection with these statistics.

The latest scientific evidence, based on multiple studies, shows that patients with obesity (including young adults) hospitalized with COVID-19 experienced substantially higher rates of severe outcomes, such as requiring intensive care treatment, mechanical ventilation and death.

Research on the linkage between obesity, NCDs and COVID-19 is very important for the European Region as it is the region most affected by NCD-related morbidity and mortality. An increasing proportion of children and adults in the Region are living with overweight or obesity. In addition to causing psychological problems, excess weight drastically increases a person’s risk of developing cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes.

“WHO wants to provide a platform where Member States can easily share their experience and data relating to obesity, NCDs and COVID-19 related outcomes. This expert meeting provides an opportunity for policy-makers, experts and health professionals of the Region to do this,” said Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, one of the event’s organizers. “The knowledge and insights gained during this meeting will contribute to WHO’s reports and recommendations”.

Pandemic of unhealthy foods

Continued NCD management and awareness of its importance is critical during the COVID-19 outbreak. The movement restrictions employed by countries during the pandemic have increased the risk of obesity and impeded its management by limiting people’s ability to obtain healthy food, get sufficient exercise or access health-care services.

Recent research highlights other worrying trends, such as rising sales of unhealthy snacks and digital marketing of unhealthy foods to children. In some countries of the European Region, producers of unhealthy foods have started a discussion on introducing weaker marketing restrictions and reformulations of processed foods under the pretext of COVID-19 and its impact on the Region’s economies.

“In the UK, we have observed increasing sales of snacks, many unhealthy, since March 2020, and this has been accompanied by less physical activity,” said Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist of Public Health England (PHE).

“PHE’s third annual report on sugar reduction in the UK highlighted how overall sugar in many food groups is continuing to rise, despite reductions by some businesses, and that the pace of change is too slow. As the emerging evidence on the severity of COVID-19 spotlights, increased weight gain and obesity appears to be a factor in the health risks. This further illustrates that strong action to support populations to become healthier is likely to also reduce the adverse outcomes.”

In this context, it is even more important to choose better policies and approaches that will contribute to well-being and protect people’s health. The severity and reach of the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of interconnecting the strategic priorities outlined in the European Programme of Work 2020–2025: moving towards universal health coverage, protecting against health emergencies, and ensuring healthy lives and well-being for all at all ages.

Related articles: