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Measures to contain COVID-19 could worsen obesity crisis

A team of experts warns that obesity rates may explode as a result of COVID-19 lockdowns. The stress, anxiety, and lack of physical activity associated with the pandemic creates psychosocial insecurity that leads to obesity, warn the researchers.

Strategies are needed to keep the public healthy and safe from COVID-19 infection. Investment in obesity research could help to inform counter measures that encourage healthier diets and more physical activity, while also combatting COVID-19.

Study co-author Christoffer Clemmensen is a professor in the Novo Nordisk Foundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) at the University of Copenhagen.

“We are concerned that policy makers 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,” said Professor Clemmensen.

In collaboration with two other experts, Professor Clemmensen has outlined how COVID-19 containment strategies could increase rates of obesity.

First, the study authors explained that people with limited economic resources are more likely to eat highly-processed and energy-rich food. Such foods are known to increase both appetite and calorie intake.

“It is likely that more people will turn to these forms of food, as more people lose their jobs and experience economic hardship,” said study co-author Professor Michael Bang Petersen of Aarhus University.

The researchers also acknowledged that physical distancing increases anxiety by limiting our ability to socially interact. Feelings of loneliness and isolation combined with confinement at home can trigger excessive eating, said the experts.

Study co-author Professor Thorkild I.A. Sørensen noted that we still do not exactly understand how a person’s mental health and economic status influence the risk of developing 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 Professor Sørensen.

Even though further research is needed to establish cause and effect, the study authors said the scientific expectations are clear: physical distancing and rising rates of unemployment should lead us to expect increased rates of obesity.

The researchers are urging governments and decision makers to consider what impact COVID-19 containment strategies, such as lockdowns, will have on the public’s metabolic health. 

The study is published in the journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer


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