Will the COVID-Obesity Intersection Bring Change?

Unfolding IntersectionAbout a year ago, Boris Johnson had an epiphany. He came uncomfortably close to death because of COVID-19. Obesity was the reason it was so bad for him, he decided. “I was too fat,” he said. So he launched the Better Health campaign to slim down the UK. But the UK is not alone in this. A recent analysis confirms that obesity rates are a key factor in the variation of COVID-19 death rates from country to country. A year into this pandemic, is the COVID-obesity intersection sparking any real change?

Reports from the Clinic

A recent report from the AMA suggests the COVID-obesity connection is prompting some patients to change their thinking about obesity. In this story, obesity medicine physician Fatima Cody Stanford describes patients she’s been seeing for years, who were once hesitant about obesity treatment:

“I’m like, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I’ve been trying to get you to surgery for five years.’ And they say, ‘I’m seeing my family and friends die and I don’t want to be that person. I know I should have done it back when you recommended it in 2015 or 2013 even, but here I am. I’m ready.’”

Obesity is a slow burn. It progresses over years to more and more serious complications. Blood pressure creeps up. Pre-diabetes might develop. NAFLD may progress silently. But it often takes years for the complications of obesity to become really serious. And when they do, a person’s health faces a great threat.

But with COVID-19, that long-term vulnerability can become obvious in an instant. This immediate threat is sparking some people living with obesity to act with more urgency.

Rebooting a “Largely Ineffective” UK Campaign

Meanwhile, it became obvious that Johnson’s Better Health campaign came to naught. Urging people to eat less and move more is a seductive strategy that fails over and over.

So a new Office for Health Promotion will take over the effort to reduce obesity in the UK with high hopes for a better effect. Will it be more effective? It will be led by Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer. Adam Leyland describes him as non-charismatic, but “steely and unflappable.”

But the key question is whether Whitty and other policy makers will get real about obesity. Will the intersection of obesity and COVID finally force people to change their thinking – their biased mental models of obesity?

If so, then genuine progress is possible.

Click here for perspective from the AMA on this bad-news, good-news story. For more on the situation in the UK, click herehere, here, and here.

Unfolding Intersection, painting by Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso / WikiArt

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April 15, 2021