The Deceitfulness of Riches

Synergistic Misinformation About COVID and Obesity

Obesity? No problem! Obesity? OMG, you better lose weight or COVID will get you! Remember the information age? It’s been canceled. We are living in the misinformation age. And there’s nothing like a pandemic to fuel the market for misinformation. The intersection of obesity risks and COVID-19 risks is adding to it. Two opposite but synergistic extremes of misinformation are fueling it.

The Weight-Loss Extreme

At this extreme, Boris Johnson is selling a get thin quick scheme to the British public instead of a more substantive policy for addressing obesity. Johnson explains that he was “too fat” and thus, he had a bad time when he fell ill with COVID-19:

We all put things off – I know I have. I’ve wanted to lose weight for ages, and like many people I struggle with my weight. I go up and down, but during the whole coronavirus epidemic and when I got it, too, I realized how important it is not to be overweight.

So now he’s exercising! He poses for publicity shots, taking a gentle run in the morning with his cute little dog. Lovely images.

And to be sure, there’s nothing wrong with encouraging people to be a bit more active. Biking is getting a real boost from the Prime Minister’s Better Health campaign. The campaign is also experimenting with food marketing regulations – not a bad idea.

But his campaign to urge Britons to lose weight will have exactly zero impact on the prevalence of obesity. Celebrities, weight loss programs, and health pundits have all been doing this for years. People spend vast sums of money on gyms, fitness clubs, and diet books. Yet the prevalence of obesity keeps rising because larger forces are at work causing this problem. As professor Harry Rutter recently explained so well, we need a more complete, systems-level approach to make a difference.

The Obesity-Is-No-Problem Extreme

At the other extreme of misinformation, some HAES® advocates deny it all. There are “issues” with research on COVID-19 and obesity, says one of them. So obesity makes no difference if you get COVID, she says. In fact, you will find that she doesn’t even say the word “obesity.” Obesity is not real – it’s all about people trying to make you feel bad about your weight, she reasons. She has a book to sell about her Anti-Diet Diet. Don’t buy other diet books, buy mine! Don’t listen to Boris telling you to lose weight, listen to my podcast!

The net effect is to tell followers of this cult to ignore CDC advice that obesity is a risk factor for bad outcomes with COVID-19.

Reason and Facts

Both of these extremes of misinformation serve only to obscure the truth. The truth is that obesity will increase the risk of having a rough time with COVID-19. But a crash course of weight loss will not necessarily make that risk disappear. A little weight loss can improve a person’s metabolic health, but obesity is a chronic disease. What’s needed for better health is a long-term plan and access to actual evidence-based obesity care. In the meantime, people with obesity should be very careful to follow public health precautions to avoid getting COVID-19.

At the Boris Johnson extreme, he’s doing little to improve access to that care in the NHS. At the HAES extreme, evangelists preach that there’s nothing to worry about because obesity isn’t a real health risk.

Thus we have perfectly synergistic misinformation campaigns fueling each other.

Click here for solid information on reducing your risk for COVID-19. For more on getting the care you need during the pandemic, click here.

The Deceitfulness of Riches, painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale / flickr

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July 30, 2020