Lockdown Contributes to Major Risk Factor for COVID-19: Weight Gain

For more than a year now, Covid-19 sticks around all over the world. This is also the case in the U.S., where the coronavirus is now the second leading risk factor for death. Whereas our earlier study among Dutch consumers showed that lockdowns can lead to a healthier diet, an American study showed the opposite.

A survey held by The Harris Poll, conducted in late February 2021, showed that 61% of American adults experienced undesired weight changes in the months prior to the survey. Since the beginning of the pandemic, 42% of the American adults gained an average of 13 kilogramsOut of the people who experienced weight gain, 10% put on 23 kilosOn the other side of the spectrum, 18% of Americans indicated that they unintentionally lost weight, with an average of 12 kilos. 

Overweight and obesity can put individuals’ health at risk. After age over 60 and organ transplant, obesity is the third highest risk factor for death by Covid-19. It is therefore alarming news that such a high number of people in the U.S. have gained a significant amount of weight. 

Moreover, it is impossible to ignore that this weight gain is an indirect consequence of the measures taken by the U.S. government to tackle Covid, primarily the lockdown. 

Americans started to eat more calory-rich foods and snacks, drink more alcohol, but also smoke moreComfort foods improve mood briefly or help people blow off steam from the pandemic stress. These dopamine ‘bombs’ are hard to resist when there is little else to do.  

Online grocery sales reached a new peak, meat sales increased extraordinarily by 34.6% and retailers saw periods of stock purchases. Americans spent most in the categories frozen foods, dry grains and beans, and baking ingredients.  

Next to increased eating, lack of exercise has undoubtedly had an influence on the weight gain. Not only due to the fact that gyms have been closed and exercising in groups was at times not allowed. Working from home, ordering groceries online, having nowhere to go to in the weekend, have all added to a sedentary period. Not only does lack of exercise (often) lead to weight gain, it could potentially be an independent high risk factor for poor outcomes when infected with Covid. A recent study observing 50,000 people found that Covid patients who did not exercise consistently (2.5 hours every week) in the past two years were twice as likely to be hospitalized, and two and a half times as likely to die from the infection. 

Authorities should learn from this and adapt their policies. Socially distancing and staying home can help people avoid diseases, but a strong immune system is necessary for us to potentially overcome them. With the above in mind, our recommendations for governments to avoid weight gain during pandemics such as covid-19 are:  

  • Governments need to put better policies in place that stimulate a healthy diet. 
  • In case lockdowns are necessary, prioritize opening up sports facilities when the first chance arises. 
  • Stimulate (socially distant) outdoor activities and keep parks, beaches and other open spaces open and accessible. A recent systematic review indicated that the chance of outdoor transmission of the virus is 19 times smaller than indoors. 
  • As a last resort and in case the options above are impossible, inform and empower citizens to stay active during a lockdown. What they can do to keep themselves moving at home 

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