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Excess weight increases risk of serious illness from Covid-19, PHE report finds

27 Jul 2020
Being obese or excessively overweight increases the risk of severe illness and death from Covid-19, a new Public Health England (PHE) report confirms.

The report summarises findings from evidence published during the pandemic on the effects of excess weight and obesity on Covid-19. UK and international evidence suggests that being severely overweight puts people at greater risk of hospitalisation, Intensive Care Unit (ICU) admission and death from Covid-19, with risk growing substantially as BMI (body mass index) increases.

The current evidence does not suggest that having excess weight increases people’s chances of contracting Covid-19, however, the data does show that obese people are significantly more likely to become seriously ill and be admitted to intensive care with Covid-19 compared to those with a healthy BMI.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England: “The current evidence is clear that being overweight or obese puts you at greater risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19, as well as from many other life-threatening diseases.

“It can be hard to lose weight and even harder to sustain it, which is why people cannot easily do it on their own. Losing weight can bring huge benefits for health – and may also help protect against the health risks of Covid-19. The case for action on obesity has never been stronger.”

One study found that for people with a BMI of 30-35, risk of death from Covid-19 increases by 40% and with a BMI over 40 by 90%, compared to those who were a healthier weight. Other data found that in intensive care units 7.9% of critically ill patients with Covid-19 had a BMI over 40 compared with 2.9% of the population.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of adults in England are overweight or obese, with people aged 55-74, those living in deprived areas and certain BAME groups more severely affected.

Excess fat can affect the respiratory system and is likely to affect inflammatory and immune function. This can impact people’s response to infection and increase vulnerability to severe symptoms of Covid-19. People with obesity may be less likely to access health care and support and it is also thought that Covid-19 affects other diseases associated with obesity.

The report highlights that supporting people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight may reduce the severe effects of Covid-19 on the population, especially among vulnerable groups that are most affected by obesity.

The report notes some limitations on evidence to date and highlights the need for more evidence, including research to establish the effect that weight management might have for groups at greater risk of the severe effects of Covid-19.

The report also summarises evidence regarding the nation’s eating and exercise habits during the Covid-19 pandemic. While some data suggests that more people have exercised during lockdown, evidence indicates that the nation’s exercise levels have not increased overall since before the pandemic. Meanwhile, snack food and alcohol sales have increased from high street shops.