The coronavirus highlighted the risks created by another escalating health emergency: obesity. The prevalence of obesity has almost tripled in the past four decades and is still rising. Obese people have a higher risk of suffering complications or dying from Covid-19, while also being vulnerable to diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer. The United Nations warned in 2020 that obesity is a “global pandemic in its own right.” Tougher rules have forced more disclosure on food labels. Now money managers concerned about the social impact of their investments are putting pressure on food companies to take action.
1. What links obesity and Covid-19?
Being obese, which generally means having a body mass index of 30 or more, decreases lung capacity and is linked to impaired immune function. Obese people diagnosed with Covid-19 were more than twice as likely to be hospitalized, 74% more likely to need an intensive care unit and 48% more likely to die, according to a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Research has also linked obesity to lower responses to numerous vaccines. Meanwhile a U.K. survey found twice as many people put on weight as lost it during the initial pandemic lockdown in early 2020.
2. How prevalent is obesity?
Some 39% of adults, or more than 1.9 billion people, were overweight in 2016 and of these more than 650 million were obese, according to the World Health Organization. Bulging waistlines are driven partly by economic success — wealthy populations eat more. But the poor in well-off countries tend to have higher obesity rates than the rich, and obesity is rising in developing nations too. Countries as varied as Indonesia and Brazil have communities that are both poorly nourished and overweight.
3. What causes it?
The reasons are complex: Diet, genetics, lack of exercise and social environment all play a role. Fast-food restaurant meals, ultraprocessed foods and soft drinks are among the culprits. Industrially processed convenience food — usually loaded with salt, fat, sugar and additives — makes up more than half of consumed calories in the U.S. and U.K., where it’s often cheaper than fresh food. Globally, more than 3 billion people can’t afford healthy and nutritious diets, according to the UN.
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