Portrait, Susie Birney

OCW2021: Turning Up the Volume on Solutions

Today is World Obesity Day and this day of global attention presents a basic question. Are we all about the problem? Or in the spirit of OCW2021, can we turn up the volume on solutions? Preferably solutions that are actually helpful. Because frankly, the world’s attention span is short. For too long, the world has been hearing about the crisis of obesity. But all the crisis talk distracts from attending to helpful action.

The truth is that we have many tools for coping with obesity. Headlines, though, on this World Obesity Day are all about blaming obesity for COVID deaths.

Sensational Headlines

The sensational headlines jumped at us. The Financial Times tells us about a “stark link between obesity and COVID deaths.” The subhead is more worthy of a tabloid than a sober, business-oriented broadsheet:

WHO-backed report concludes that 9 out of 10 fatalities
have occurred in countries with high obesity levels

If the intent is alarm, then this is hitting the mark. The casual reader can be forgiven for thinking this headline suggests that obesity is responsible for 90 percent of COVID fatalities. That, of course, is a tremendous exaggeration. This factoid might have you thinking obesity is the biggest risk factor for COVID deaths, but it’s not. The biggest factor is advanced age. Obesity is an important factor, but it doesn’t overshadow everything else.

Human nature has a limited capacity for absorbing alarming news. The alarms about obesity have been sounding now for decades. Believe it or not, people really do get it. More people are living with obesity these days and it truly does have an impact on our lives and our health. At this point, messages of dire alarm don’t help.

The Need for Solutions

Susie Birney marked World Obesity Day by sharing her story of living with obesity, struggling to cope, and getting very little medical help with it for years:

“I hadn’t gone anywhere in years, with friends, to parties, for meals, I’d really secluded myself because I was ashamed of my weight.

“I had stopped living, I had put off all of these things that I should have been doing. Finally, I realised I’ve got to live.”

With medical help for obesity, Birney’s health has improved and so, too, has her quality of life.

Catastrophizing Doesn’t Help

The unmet need in dealing with obesity, is not to exaggerate and catastrophize the problem. The real need is to offer more solutions that work. To make them accessible. In the case of public health initiatives, making sure that they do more good than harm is essential.

In other words, in the spirit of OCW2021, let us lift up solutions that will actually help people affected by obesity.

Click here for a thorough review of responses to the global obesity pandemic.

Portrait, photograph © Susie Birney

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March 4, 2021

8 Responses to “OCW2021: Turning Up the Volume on Solutions”

  1. March 04, 2021 at 12:10 pm, Johanna Ralston said:

    Thanks, Ted. I hope you had a chance to read the Declaration that all the main obesity organizations have drafted and signed, reiterating the ROOTS framework – all the solutions are there, on our shared http://www.worldobesityday.org website! We would love to have you sign it as well. Thankfully the challenges that FT describes have solutions, and the report has been a wake-up call for the world that commitments made by every WHO Member State in 2013 are far off course and the time to act is now. And the great news is WHO and UNICEF are ready to launch a coordinated approach as was announced at the event today. It is great to be working together on this – people with obesity have been neglected for far too long. All best, Johanna

    • March 04, 2021 at 2:26 pm, Ted said:

      Thanks, Johanna and thanks for pointing to the Declaration. I think the Declaration is great and am happy to have ConscienHealth sign onto it. Congratulations on bringing WHO and UNICEF aboard!

      Regarding what the FT printed, it is misleading for them to suggest (even obliquely) that nine out of ten COVID fatalities are linked to obesity. The top risk factor is age. Not obesity.

  2. March 05, 2021 at 4:26 am, Joseph Proietto said:

    I am sure there was no intention to say that 90% of deaths from covid are caused by obesity. There is no doubt that old age is the biggest risk factor for mortality. However, Tartoff SY and colleagues showed that obesity did increase the risk of death from covid which for those with a BMI > 45 kg/m2 was a four fold increase in death especially for those who were younger than 60 years of age (Annals of Internal Medicine 2020). The point was missed however that it is very true that Governments around the World are ignoring the management of obesity. Obesity is without a doubt the cause of the diabetes epidemic we are seeing now around the World.

    • March 05, 2021 at 4:43 am, Ted said:

      Yes, it’s best to assume that intentions are good, even when results are not. The parade of headlines saying that 90% of COVID deaths come from places with high obesity has been impressive and dismaying. That number (90%) yields headlines that get lots of clicks. But I can’t see how it informs people in an accurate way.

  3. March 06, 2021 at 3:52 am, Ada Cuevas said:

    The media definitely use exaggerated titles (for any kind of topic), however, it is also true that the time has come to take this pandemic disease seriously. The population must be informed and awarded of the risks associated with obesity and educated that it is no the simple result of lack of willpower when in reality it is a disease.
    I live in a country with a high prevalence of obesity in adults and children, (working for more than 20 years with patients living with obesity), and seeing the data that clearly outlines the association between obesity and severity of COVID-19, validates all the work that I do to ensure that patients and the wider public understand the seriousness of obesity.

    • March 06, 2021 at 4:52 am, Ted said:

      You are absolutely right, Ada. However, I don’t think we need to use hyperbole, as was employed in the 9-out-of-10-COVID-deaths factoid, to get the point across. And solutions, such as those you offer to your patients, are essential for getting people to listen when we wish to tell them about a problem.

  4. March 08, 2021 at 4:26 am, Maya Barake said:

    It is quite true that the emphasis to treat obesity should be in pointing out on solutions, promoting them but also making them accessible.
    And many solutions are there. Be it in the numerous studies showing the effect of the environment like presence of pedestrian lanes for exercise, healthy snacks at schools, highly taxed sugar beverages, to cite only few. And many medical solutions are also there, with growing literature on medications, surgical and dietary therapies. And both the public and the professional worlds have been continuously exposed to these solutions.

    However, few are the countries who are putting those solutions into practice, who are applying the research-proven numerous modalities to make our environment less obesity promoting. Many industries are even here at stake, whether in food or beverage production, entertainment or others. And limited are governments and third party payers who are covering for medications or surgeries that treat obesity, considering those as cosmetic solutions.

  5. March 08, 2021 at 4:26 am, Maya Barake said:

    Unless Obesity is clearly admitted to be a disease and one with both visible and unseen catastrophic consequences, the numerous available solutions for its curbing will not effectively reach political and economical agendas, and thus will not get into practice. And how clearly the COVID pandemic put the spotlight on this deadly disease. And how even more clearly it proved guilty in the mortality of the young and healthy. And what better time can we have other than now to speak loudly about Obesity.