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Infectious Diseases

Updated 15 June 2020

Obesity and Covid-19: Junk food industry ‘shares the blame’, some experts say

Obesity was identified early in the Covid-19 outbreak as a risk factor. Now, some experts are partially blaming the food industry for the pandemic.

  • Overweight and obese individuals are at high risk of severe Covid-19
  • Experts say the global fast food industry is a key player in the obesity pandemic
  • Researchers are calling on the industry to stop promoting unhealthy foods


Being overweight, and obesity, are major risk factors for several chronic diseases, such as type 2 diabetes, cancer, stroke and heart diseases, and, more recently, severe Covid-19. In a paper published in the BMJ journal this week, researchers at the Queen Mary University of London (QMUL) argued that the food industry shares the blame, not just for the obesity pandemic, but also for the severity of Covid-19 disease and its devastating consequences. 

Obesity on the rise: global food industry to blame?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), worldwide obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, and 2016 statistics show that more than 1.9 billion adults, aged 18 and older, were overweight, and 650 million of this total were obese. Locally, 2016 statistics show that obesity rates in South Africa are also increasing rapidly, with almost 70% of women and 40% of men either overweight or obese, according to the Department of Health’s website.

The problem is also not limited to high-income countries anymore. Low- and middle-income countries are also seeing a dramatic rise in overweight and obesity cases, especially in urban areas. The causes of obesity are complex, but one of the key drivers is in the way we eat, something that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years.

As a result of changes in our environment, unhealthy, processed food has become more readily available (and affordable), and opportunities for physical activity are lacking. In their paper, the three researchers argue that the high number of obesity cases worldwide is the result of living in food environments that make it difficult not to overconsume calories, and mention the global food industry’s role in this.

“The global food industry produces and extensively promotes cheap, sugar-sweetened beverages and ultraprocessed foods high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat that provide only a transient sensation of fullness.

“Governments have done too little, with one of the few successes being taxes on sugar sweetened beverages – in particular, the industry levy in the UK that has resulted in reformulation to reduce the sugar content,” they wrote.

Covid-19 and obesity: the link

Evidence that indicates that obesity is an independent risk factor for severe Covid-19 illness and death continues to grow. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recently mentioned that obesity puts people at risk for being hit hard by Covid-19.

In their paper, the researchers mention a UK population cohort study that looked at over 400 000 participants, 340 of whom were admitted to hospital with confirmed Covid-19. Of the admitted patients, 44% were overweight and 34% obese.

A careful analysis revealed that the risk of critical illness from Covid-19 increased by 44% for people who were overweight, and almost doubled for those who were obese. They further mention that the risk of dying from Covid-19 increased for obese patients by 27% (for those in the first obesity category – with a body mass index of 30–34.9), and the risk was more than double this for those in the most obese category.

Another study, also published in BMJ this year, looked at 16 749 hospitalised UK patients with Covid-19 and found that being obese, male, or elderly reduces chance of survival. The link between obesity and the risk of severe Covid-19 illness, or death, is therefore no coincidence. The QMUL researchers explained in their paper that several mechanisms could explain the relationship between obesity and Covid-19, and that obesity can alter immune responses, which has been proven with the influenza virus, and further explained another link:

“Obesity diminishes lung function through greater resistance in the airways and more difficulty in expanding the lungs. When patients with obesity need to be admitted to intensive care units it is challenging to improve their oxygen saturation levels and ventilate them.”

‘Food industry must stop promoting unhealthy foods’ 

While it may be easier and cheaper to purchase less healthy food and beverages these days, our behaviour is having a direct effect on our health. And while there’s no single or simple solution to the obesity pandemic, the researchers say that the food industry shares the blame and that change must follow.

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, an increase in food poverty, disruptions to supply chains, and panic buying may have limited access to fresh foods, thus tilting the balance towards a greater consumption of highly processed foods and those with long shelf lives that are usually high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat.

“Moreover, since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic the food industry has launched campaigns and corporate social responsibility initiatives, often with thinly veiled tactics using the outbreak as a marketing opportunity (for example, by offering half a million “smiles” in the form of doughnuts to NHS staff).

The researchers are calling for food industries worldwide to stop promoting unhealthy foods and drinks immediately, and add that governments must step in too.

“The toll of morbidity and mortality from Covid-19 has made this more apparent and more urgent than ever,” they wrote.

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READ | Similar to adults, obesity raises kids' odds for severe Covid-19

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