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Infectious Diseases

Updated 21 August 2020

Scientists warn that lockdowns could increase levels of obesity around the world

Lockdown strategies may be an effective non-pharmaceutical Covid-19 intervention, but there's one downside – obesity.

  • Lockdowns help to slow down Covid-19 in the absence of a vaccine
  • These measures may, however, have an impact on other aspects of physical and mental health
  • Researchers investigated obesity as an example

The lockdown measures implemented across the world may have helped prevent many Covid-19 deaths, but the lack of physical activity and emotional stress may have led to overeating – and increased levels of obesity.

Three researchers from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Copenhagen cautioned that rates of obesity may drastically increase because of strategies put in place to limit the spread of Covid-19.

According to the researchers, obesity research is imperative in order to help people to eat healthily, maintain their mental health and stay active while in lockdown.

"We are concerned that policymakers do not fully understand how strategies such as lockdowns and business closures could fuel the rise of obesity – a chronic disease with severe health implications, but with few reliable treatment options," stated Associate Professor Christoffer Clemmensen, from the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR), at the University of Copenhagen in a news release.

How does lockdown contribute to obesity?

The researchers investigated the link between lockdown policies and increased levels of obesity in a letter published in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology.

In their paper, they listed several consequences of lockdowns on factors that can increase the risk of obesity.

According to the researchers, it’s well-documented that people with limited economic resources are more likely to eat highly processed, energy-rich foods. As lockdowns lead to economic despair for many, adapting to more affordable food choices means that families eat what's available, instead of making healthy, balanced choices.

"It is likely that more people will turn to these forms of food, as more people lose their jobs and experience economic hardship," says co-author Professor Michael Bang Petersen, from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University.

A second factor is the impact of lockdown on mental health and anxiety. Lockdowns limit our ability to interact with friends, family or a supportive community, which can have loneliness and overeating as a result.

For many, an office environment or a gym or fitness class offered structure and support. Without this, it’s possible to develop unhealthy patterns. Without access to a gym and restricted to neighbourhoods that might not be ideal for outdoor exercise, it may be difficult to continue an exercise regime. 

More attention to obesity needed

According to the researchers, there is still more work to be done to understand exactly how a person’s mental health and economic status may lead to an increased risk of obesity.

"We know that there are links between obesity and a person's class and mental health, but we don't exactly understand how they make an impact," said co-author Professor Thorkild I.A. Sørensen from CBMR at the University of Copenhagen.

Currently, they are urging government and policymakers to consider the impact of Covid-19 containment strategies on the health of the public, and develop strategies to promote their physical and mental health while protecting them against Covid-19.

READ | "Stress eating" during lockdown? Here are tips to avoid it

READ | School closures could be adding to US kids' waistlines

READ | Eat healthy, move your body during coronavirus pandemic

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