Other countries have been galvanized to confront diet issues. The U.S. has had no such wakeup call.
By HELENA BOTTEMILLER EVICH
The same week British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was admitted to intensive care for Covid-19, two studies came out identifying obesity as a significant risk factor for serious illness and death. It was April 2020, and doctors were scrambling to understand why coronavirus gave some people mild symptoms and left others so sick they were gasping for air.
After Johnson recovered, he became vocal about the role he believed his obesity had played in his brush with the virus: “When I went into ICU, when I was really ill … I was way overweight,” he said.
That summer, Johnson, a conservative who in the past has colorfully railed against “the continuing creep of the nanny state,” launched a new governmentwide obesity strategy, complete with a ban on junk food advertising on TV before 9 p.m., new mandates to label calories in restaurants and a requirement that healthier products be stocked near checkout lines. The prime minister began jogging daily and urged the public to adopt healthier habits.
Other countries, too, have ramped up action as officials begin to recognize diet-related diseases such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes have made their citizens much more vulnerable during the pandemic. Some states in Mexico recently went as far as banning junk food sales to children — on top of the country’s existing taxes on sugary drinks and fast food. Chile was already deep in its own crackdown on unhealthy products, having imposed the first mandatory, national warning labels for foods with high levels of salt, sugar and fat along with a ban on marketing such foods to kids.
In Washington, there has been no such wake-up call about the link between diet-related diseases and the pandemic. There is no national strategy. There is no systemswide approach, even as researchers increasingly recognize that obesity is a disease that is driven not by lack of willpower, but a modern society and food system that’s almost perfectly designed to encourage the overeating of empty calories, along with more stress, less sleep and less daily exercise,setting millions on a path to poor health outcomes that is extremely difficult to break from.
“Nobody is doing anything about this. Nobody is saying this has to stop,” said Marion Nestle, a longtime New York University professor and author of numerous books about food policy. “And how do we stop it? With great difficulty and political will.”
“If you’re going to do anything about it, you have to take on the food industry, which no one wants to do,” she added.https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/PGKF8/5/
There’s also a deep-seated belief in America that obesity and other diet-related diseases are the result of personal choices and anything the government does to meddle with our diets is an assault on American liberty. That narrative is increasingly being challenged by science. Research shows that once someone has obesity, there are almost no dietary or exerciseinterventions that are successful at reversing the disease over the long term and many people lack access to more aggressive treatments like drugs and bariatric surgery.Humans, it turns out, are largely hardwired to keep weight on once they gain it.
The problem is deeply entrenched and staggering in scale: More than 42 percent of American adults — about 100 million people — had obesity before the pandemic began, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly three-fourths of American adults are overweight or have obesity. Roughly one in five children now have obesity. The costs associated with this epidemic, along with diabetes, hypertension, cardiovascular disease and cancer, all related to diet, are among the greatest threats to the fiscal future of the United States, not to mention the health, well-being and productivity of millions of people.
Researchers have estimated that nearly two-thirds of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. were related to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure. One study found that patients with a body mass index of 45 or higher (severe obesity) were about a third more likely to be hospitalized and more than 60 percent more likely to die from the virus compared with individuals without the disease.
The pandemic and resulting lockdowns have also worsened obesity rates for both adults and children, according to early data. There are a number of theories about why, from less exercise and less sleep to poor nutrition, more snacking and a whole lot more stress.
“Globally, these issues are on fire. In the U.S., we’re like sucking our thumb.”
An industry consultant who spoke on the condition of anonymity
As the link between poor diets and the toll of Covid-19 became clear, some food industry leaders began bracing for a backlash, assuming that top government officials would be looking to take action in the aftermath of the pandemic, according to interviews with industry insiders. If former first lady Michelle Obama would take on childhood obesity without a pressing crisis like Covid-19, surely the government would again get serious about nutrition policy after hundreds of thousands of deaths. Food and beverage companies have been closely following whether marketing crackdowns, warning labels or other more aggressive measures could spread. So far, there isn’t much on the agenda in the U.S..