UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is on a mission to tackle his nation’s obesity epidemic after being hospitalised with COVID-19, and health experts say Australia should follow suit.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the health risks of obesity, with research showing an increased risk of severe illness among obese and overweight people.
For Mr Johnson, who shed six kilograms during a stay in the intensive care unit, the issue is personal.
“I’ve always wanted to lose weight for ages and ages and like many people I struggle with my weight, I go up and down. But since I recovered from coronavirus I have been steadily building up my fitness,” he said on Monday.
When I went into ICU when I was really ill, I was way overweight … I was too fat.”
Mr Johnson is now turning the heat up on fast food giants with a suite of new policies.
They include outlawing buy-one-get-one-free junk food deals, and a ban on advertising unhealthy foods before 9pm on TV and online.
Public health advocates “welcome the progress” on the long-standing issue and “we would certainly hope that Australia follows suit,” The George Institute for Global Health research fellow Alexandra Jones told The New Daily.
“I think in the UK what we’ve seen is a political window of opportunity, caused by Boris Johnson himself being sick from coronavirus, and then being very willing to admit that the severity of his illness was because of his weight,” Dr Jones said.
Australia’s obesity epidemic is almost as bad as England’s, where more than two-thirds of adults, and about one-third of children aged 10 and 11 years old are obese or overweight,
In Australia, about two-thirds of adults are considered obese or overweight, and one-quarter of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.
Concerningly, the proportion of obese adults is continuing to rise.
“The important thing to remember is that obesity already makes us vulnerable to cancer, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes, which are already causes significant illness in Australia,” Dr Jones said.
“But now there’s also evidence emerging that obesity makes us more vulnerable to COVID-19 and what the evidence consistently is shown now that living with excess weight puts people at greater risk of serious illness or death from COVID-19.”
This means that “your risk grows as your body mass index (BMI) grows”, she said.
If you’re overweight, COVID-19 is more likely to land you in intensive care, and that is also a strain on the health system.”
Health systems under stress
Mr Johnson’s moves to tackle obesity have been prompted by the toll it has taken on the UK’s health care system during the pandemic, Dr Jones said.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused the NHS to buckle, with 45,759 deaths from COVID-19 to date compared to 161 in Australia.
Australia has been “relatively lucky” with the number of
hospitalisations required from COVID so far, Dr Jones said.
“But if the numbers increased, then certainly, the fact that a large proportion of our population is overweight or obese either would put greater strain on the health system.”
Coronavirus restrictions “do make it more difficult to be active, to maintain a healthy diet and sleep well”, Dr Jones said.
We’ve seen a lot of aggressive advertising from things like fast-food chains promoting comfort eating as a way to deal with the stress of the pandemic.”
Dr Jones said Mr Johnson’s approach of not simply urging individuals to improve their health but taking “meaningful regulatory action to improve the food environment for people” should be replicated by Australia’s policy makers.
“It’s very easy for us to tell people to be healthy, but if we’re currently operating in an environment where we’re always marketed junk food, it’s very hard for us to actually make good choices,” she said.
Measures that Australia should adopt from the UK include a ‘sugar tax’ – which has seen the amount of sugar in UK drinks fall by 28 per cent –and a ban on junk food advertising targeted at kids, Dr Jones said.
“Australia has been a global leader in tobacco control, and it would be great if we could show the same political will to improve Australia’s diets and put health over the profits of the food industry,” she said.
“Health groups have been calling for action on this for a long time.”