There’s no doubt that a properly functioning immune system is vital for survival, especially considering the times we are currently living in. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed life as we know it, affecting health, the global economy and our lifestyles, be it directly or indirectly – with one such impact being the effect on people’s weight. It’s true that many strategies employed to combat the spread of the pandemic, such as social distancing and lockdown policies, have been incredibly positive from an epidemiological standpoint. However, adopting these strategies has had a negative influence on other facets of our health – including the impact upon the global obesity crisis.
Today, March 4, is World Obesity Day. As a healthcare professional in the UAE, a country where over 70% of the male Emirati population under 30 years old are obese, it is my duty to offer guidance and assistance to those looking to lose weight, as well as educate the masses on the need to lead a healthier life. However, with two out of three people currently overweight in the UAE, dieting alone is often not enough for many. Comparatively, there is a need to induce weight loss by increasing the feeling of fullness, where a person is more likely to reduce the amount of food they eat throughout the day, and in turn, lose weight.
Moments of confinement can have an effect on food availability and accessibility, which can in turn have an effect on diet quality. As we saw in the earlier stages of the pandemic, as governments doubled down on restrictions, with the uncertainty that loomed ahead, many households cut back on their outgoings, which included food bills. This resulted in shopping for more affordable and, frequently, less healthy and nutritious options. A cross-sectional study on eating habits and lifestyle practices of UAE residents during the lockdown period showed that many had adopted unfavourable eating habits, including increased calorie intake and constant snacking as well as increased portion sizes, whilst reducing the amount of fruit and vegetable consumption.
Added to little to no physical activity during that time, due to the closure of sports facilities, parks and overall movement restrictions, many experienced weight gain.
Whilst coronavirus poses a threat to all individuals regardless of the person’s BMI, researchers did notice early on that obesity was a risk factor for the virus. In fact, a meta-analysis of 75 studies across 10 countries in about 400,000 COVID-19 patients found that obesity significantly increases the risk of poor outcomes, with a 46% higher risk of hospitalization, 113% higher risk of ICU admission and 48% increase in mortality. The reason being that obese individuals are more susceptible to respiratory disorders, due to reduced lung capacity, which requires them to work harder when breathing.
Barry Popkin, a Nutrition Professor at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Gillings School of Global Public Health, surmised that metabolic changes linked to excess weight can have an impact on the immune system’s ability to fight diseases, which can also play a role with COVID-19 outcomes. Obesity can cause inflammation which contributes to the incidences of diabetes and heart disease – which prompts healthcare professionals to ask how this could potentially affect the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccinations. There is currently no concrete evidence as to whether or not obesity poses a threat to the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, what has been previously noted by scientific research is how vaccines for a handful of other diseases, such as the influenza vaccine, don’t work as well in obese people as they do in those of a healthy weight.
While the biological mechanisms linking obesity with COVID-19 are complex, it appears that weight loss may have the potential to reverse them. If there is to be a silver lining with this pandemic, it is how much of an impact it has had with obese individuals working towards weight loss and practices that promote healthy living. Google saw a 20% increase in interest across the weight loss category search after countries left initial lockdowns. And global consulting leaders McKinsey & Company reported a 14% increase in spending for fitness, wellness and personal care in China post the initial lockdown period, while other categories seemed to be in decline.
I have found that there are no shortcuts to getting on the healthy bandwagon – to attain the necessary results, one must do the work. But an effective weight loss program that combines both science and healthcare is key, using a multi-layered approach involving a positive lifestyle change and incorporating methods backed by healthcare professionals, is ultimately the winning partnership needed to combat modern obesity problems.
Remember, we live in trying times. The best thing one can do is to ensure that the body’s first line of defence is operating at full capacity. And with obese and over-weight people, this starts with losing weight.
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