It took Covid-19—and a brush with death—to turn Boris Johnson into one of the world’s foremost anti-obesity advocates.
Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, endured a desperate struggle with Covid-19; the disease put him into the intensive care unit, and he was on the verge of requiring intubation. Before Johnson’s recovery, his doctors reportedly began to discuss how they would announce his death.
When Johnson emerged from the hospital, he did so with a new outlook on at least two political issues. First, the coronavirus itself: Johnson had previously been viewed as downplaying the crisis, but his brush with death understandably caused him to about-face on that issue. The other perhaps more surprising result is that Johnson, previously a known critic of the “nanny state,” had reinvented himself as one of the world’s most highly placed advocates of government anti-obesity action.
Why? “I was too fat.” Johnson blames his body’s nearly fatal battle with the coronavirus on his poor health, especially his obesity. In remarks published by the Daily Express, Johnson stated,
“The facts are simple: extra weight puts extra pressure on our organs and makes it harder to treat heart disease, cancer and–as we have found–Coronavirus… This was true in my case, and it’s true in many thousands of others. It was a wake-up call for me and I want it to be a wake-up call for the whole country.”
Johnson’s revelation is a cause for celebration. The obesity epidemic (and the associated epidemics of diabetes and other preventable, diet-based illnesses) has already caused astonishing damage to the public health of the UK, as it has in America, other Western nations, and, increasingly, the developing world. These trends are getting worse, not better, and government action is called for. As our contributor Dr. Mariela Glandt stated, “our poor metabolic health … had already inflicted staggering financial and emotional costs even before the coronavirus breached our borders.” That obesity exacerbates the damage of Covid-19—a fact not much in dispute—only makes the situation even more pressing.
At ASweetLife, we have been beating this drum since the early days of the pandemic. Dr. Glandt was one of the first international voices we are aware of to have highlighted the undeniable connections between diet, obesity, metabolic health, and the severity of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. On April 2, Dr. Glandt proclaimed that “the overlap between poor metabolic health and vulnerability to COVID-19 has become impossible to ignore.”
We are especially heartened to see the UK government make exactly the same connections in its press release: “The urgency of tackling the obesity time bomb has been brought to the fore by evidence of the link to an increased risk from COVID-19.” The head of the National Health Service (NHS), Matt Hancock, stated that “given the link between obesity and coronavirus, losing weight could be lifesaving.”
The Prime Minister has now proposed what would be some of the most aggressive anti-obesity regulations in the world.
- Sweeping bans on advertising for foods High in Fat, Sugar or Salt (HFSS). Junk food ads may be totally disallowed before 9pm.
- Ending Buy One, Get One Free promotions for HFSS foods.
- Banning the placement of HFSS foods at prominent and convenient locations in stores, such as near the cash register
- New requirements for calorie labelling in large restaurants and cafes
- New calorie labelling requirements for alcohol
On the same day, Johnson also announced a £2 billion plan to construct thousands of miles of protected bike paths. The Prime Minister called the bicycle “a giant, universal prescription” to the nation’s health woes, and the new cycleways “huge, 24-hour gyms, free and open to everyone.”
Johnson had previously been an outspoken critic and skeptic of so-called “sin taxes” aimed at curbing sugar consumption; it was just one year ago that he launched an investigation on a tax on sugary drinks. At the time, he argued that to tax a milkshake would be to disproportionately punish poorer citizens. There’s no question that those with lower income would bear the brunt of such taxes—in America, for instance, sugary drink consumption increases as wealth declines. But it is not at all a coincidence that diabetes, obesity and Covid-19 infections are all also correlated with lower income levels.
The plan has already prompted much criticism. Opponents have derided the proposal as, for example, “an absurd nanny state crusade.” Johnson may be courting a fight with his own Conservative Party backers.
But do these sorts of measures work? Most experts believe that they do. Several studies have shown that advertising restrictions improve dietary habits, especially of children, and many more have shown that unhealthy food advertising invariably has a negative effect on eating habits.
With obesity emerging as a powerful risk factor for coronavirus, the time for action is now. In the early days of the crisis, when all of our data on the virus was still from China, obesity was not yet explicitly linked with severe Covid-19 outcomes. That changed, though, as the disease spread to Europe and (especially) to the United States. By late March, we had begun to wonder aloud—Is Obesity a Risk Factor for Worse COVID-19 Outcomes? The latest studies have removed any lingering doubt. A recent survey found nine separate studies identifying obesity as a major risk factor.
If there’s an angle worth criticizing here, it’s that the NHS conflates all high fat, sugar or salt foods with obesogenic junk food. It is therefore likely that some less objectionable ingredients, such as butter and cheese, will get lumped in with all of the ultra-processed and hyperpalatable junk foods that most experts agree are at the root of the obesity epidemic. We know that it is the sodas, candy bars, potato chips, and breakfast cereals that are fueling the rise in obesity, as well as the stealthily sugared products such as granola bars, boxed dinners and flavored yogurts.
While NHS’ categorization perhaps isn’t ideal, it shouldn’t stop us from applauding what is mainly a strong effort at combatting obesity. The force of the new regulations, if they are enacted, will invariably push UK citizens away from the junk and towards healthy and minimally processed real ingredients. Imagine a world where there were apples and almonds next to the cash register for impulse purchasing, and not chocolate bars? With any luck, success in the UK can provide a model to other nations as to how to act against their own obesity crises.