The food industry must share the blame not only for the obesity crisis but also for the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic, scientists have said.
In an editorial published in the British Medical Journal, the researchers are calling on governments to force the food industry to restrict the promotion of unhealthy foods.
Graham MacGregor, co-author of the study and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Barts and The London Hospital, said: “Unlike most other risk factors identified for Covid-19 such as age, sex and ethnicity – obesity is a modifiable risk factor.
“This is why governments worldwide must seize the opportunity to help people to eat more healthily and enforce measures to restrict the promotion, marketing, and advertising of unhealthy foods and ensure their reformulation to contain far less salt, sugar and saturated fat.
“This would reduce mortality from this vicious virus and many other chronic diseases.”
Obesity can lead to a number of other serious conditions such as high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Increasing evidence also suggests that obesity is an independent risk factor for severe illness and death from Covid-19, the researchers said.
Individuals in the UK who were overweight or obese made up 78% of the confirmed Covid-19 infections and 62% of the Covid-19 deaths in hospitals, the authors noted.
They said panic buying, along with an increase in food poverty and disruption to supply chains, may have limited access to fresh foods, “thus tilting the balance towards a greater consumption of highly processed foods and those with long shelf lives that are usually high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat”.
The authors, who also included scientists from Queen Mary University of London, argued that the food industry has used the coronavirus outbreak as a marketing opportunity by, for example, offering half a million “smiles” in the form of doughnuts to NHS staff.
Despite some progress, such as taxes on sugary drinks, governments have done too little, they added.
The researchers wrote: “Reducing salt, sugar, and saturated fat across the board would improve the diet of the entire population and bring even greater benefits for people who are most socially deprived.
“The toll of morbidity and mortality from Covid-19 has made this more apparent and more urgent than ever.”