Obesity and COVID-19: It’s time to double down

By Dr Robyn Littlewood
Chief Executive, Health and Wellbeing Queensland

The COVID-19 pandemic can rightly be described as the biggest health disruption in a generation. There has never been a time more challenging for food systems and supply chains often impacting access to food, not experienced previously. Our relationships with food, our feelings of connectedness, our exercise and wellness routines and our ability to maintain a healthy weight have all become much more difficult to achieve yet so much more critical to get right. If that wasn’t enough, it’s the long-term impacts, the financial burden on families, mental and physical health of our regional and remote communities, and the increasing demands on the entire health system that I fear is something we will be ‘paying back’ for decades.

Most importantly, it is our children who are doing it tough. The feeling of ‘catch up’ for them is real and starting to look never-ending. When you overlay COVID impacts on a generation already threatened by obesity and what do we have? Catastrophic and life-long impacts on the health and wellbeing of our children, not seen in previous generations and presenting as one of the most lasting consequences for societies as a whole. Maintaining our health and wellbeing has become a wicked problem, more so than ever before. Can we recover? The answer is yes but only with good planning, commitment and deep understanding of prevention, our population and the importance of partnerships.

Two thirds of all Queensland adults were already overweight or obese prior to COVID-19, with a self-reported 32% increase in obesity among Queensland adults between 2004 and 2020. New research from My Health for Life conducted in April 2021, showed almost half of Queenslanders surveyed reported to have gained weight, and 21% reported a gain of more than 5 kilograms.

According to the same research, lockdowns and restrictions have also led to changes in eating behaviours, with an increased consumption of processed and long-life foods, and reduced consumption of fruit and vegetables. Only 1 in 3 Queenslanders reported eating fruit and vegetables daily. Weekly fruit and vegetable consumption has also decreased, and in April 2021, 15% of Queenslanders reported they don’t consume any vegetables and 18% don’t consume any fruit, critical sources of energy and nutrients vital to health and wellbeing.

Food systems and supply chains have been affected by concerns of food shortages, and food insecurity has led to reduced access to healthy foods among the most vulnerable. Food security is achieved “when all people, at all times, have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.”

The most recent data (2011-13) in Australia shows that about one third of people (31%) living in remote areas were food insecure, compared to 4% in the general Australian population. Central and North Queensland have scored 60% higher on the McKell Institute’s Food Insecurity Index compared to inner Brisbane. Food insecurity has exacerbated pre-existing health disparities across population groups, with the most disadvantaged more likely to experience higher rates of obesity, illness, hospitalisation and premature death compared to other Queenslanders.

While we focus on vaccinations and navigating our way through the pandemic (and we should), we can’t afford to lose sight of preventive health, in fact, it has become more important. According to research from the Centre for Disease Control, people living with overweight and obesity are at greater risk of severe COVID-19 complications. They are more likely to be admitted to a hospital for COVID-19 related pneumonia at a younger age, require mechanical assisted ventilation, and access intensive care units (ICUs) than healthy weight patients. Individuals with obesity are also twice as likely to die from COVID-19 than individuals with a healthy weight. Disadvantaged population groups are even more at risk.

Obesity prevention has always been important for population health and wellbeing, but the dual impact of COVID-19 on obesity, and obesity on COVID-19, impacts our short term and long term health even more.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland was established by the Queensland Government in 2019, before the pandemic. The remit was about reducing chronic disease driving an equity lens with the purpose of reducing the pressure that chronic disease has on our health systems. It was known that preventative health was the only ‘real’ long term solution to combatting the rate and risk of chronic disease. How insightful and how RIGHT and how timely was that decision?

With research emerging detailing stories of long-term chronic disease and “long COVID” resulting from COVID-19 infections, we need to be prepared to tackle the problems this creates. That is exactly what Health and Wellbeing Queensland is doing. We’re here to protect the future health of our people, our communities and our health system.

Health and Wellbeing Queensland has just announced a $68 million investment to provide free and low-cost healthy lifestyle support programs, accessible in all communities throughout Queensland, through partnering with trusted programs such as My Health for Life, Deadly Choices, Jamie’s Ministry of Food, 10,000 steps, QCWA Country Kitchens and Healthier Tuckshops Program. This is only the beginning as we continue to target and tackle each level of government, policy and system, one challenge at a time.

Queenslanders deserve the opportunity to change the trajectory of their life, with our support.

There has never been a more critical time to improve the health and wellbeing of all Queenslanders. It’s time to double down on health and wellbeing. I’m convinced Queenslanders feel the same way too.