NHS diabetes chief warns of the danger of piling on ‘life changing’ lockdown pounds as he fears many Britons have gained weight while stuck indoors
- Professor Jonathan Valabhji has warned of negative health effects of lockdown
- He warned that adults were burning fewer calories with fewer daily activities
- But added that the pandemic was an opportunity to make changes in behavior
- Study found that people with diabetes are twice as likely to die from coronavirus
- Here’s how to help people impacted by Covid-19
Britons have probably piled on the pounds while stuck indoors, the country’s top obesity and diabetes doctor warned yesterday.
Jonathan Valabhji said adults were burning fewer calories because they were not travelling to work or carrying out other daily activities.
He said the pandemic should however serve as a ‘life-changing’ trigger for changes in behaviour – especially as studies have indicated that coronavirus is more deadly for the obese.
Professor Valabhji’s research showed this week that patients with Type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, were twice as likely to die than otherwise healthy individuals. His study of 24,000 patients found that nearly a third of those who died had diabetes, and that being morbidly obese further increased the risk of death.
Pictured: NHS diabetes chief, Professor Jonathan Valabhji
Professor Valabhji, who is national clinical director for diabetes and obesity at NHS England and NHS Improvement, said: ‘A lot of people have spent a lot of time sitting indoors and there is a risk people have gained weight.
‘We won’t know that [for certain] until we see people start emerging from social distancing and we start putting people on scales.
‘For someone like myself, it’s a concern, it’s a worry for me.
‘You can see the risk that people might have gained weight sitting at home limited in what exercise they can do, not going about their daily activities and going to work. Am I worried that people have gained weight during this time? Yes, it’s not unreasonable to suppose that if people are stuck indoors they may have gained weight.’
Professor Valabhji, a consultant diabetes specialist at St Mary’s Hospital in central London, said coronavirus was an opportunity to start a healthier life.
‘One would hope that simple public health messages would land and land a little more strongly. If this is an ideal time to land a public health message – which I do believe it is – it would be eating healthily, eating a little less if you’re in the obese range and losing weight. Exercise is all part of that especially at a time when we’re no longer limited to one piece of exercise a day.’
The professor said that although adults could not change the other major risk factors for coronavirus – age and ethnicity – they could influence obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
‘The important thing about weight loss is that it has to be sustainable – incorporating habits that will last,’ he added.
‘Slowly and gradually incorporating habits that one can maintain is important. If people are in the obese range, then eating a little bit less, eating more healthily and exercising a bit more are intuitive ways to go forward.’
Earlier this month NHS figures showed that 26 per cent of men and 29 per cent of women are obese, which is defined as having a Body Mass Index of more than 30. Around 4.8million Britons have diabetes – the majority Type 2 – and rates have doubled in 20 years in line with rising obesity.
These levels are significantly higher than many other Western countries, prompting speculation that they may partly explain why the UK’s coronavirus death rates are the worst in Europe. Professor Valabhji said: ‘Diabetes is an independent risk factor for passing away with Covid… whether that is contributing to higher death rates in this country compared with others, I don’t think I can answer that and similarly with obesity.’
Other health experts are concerned that adults and children have been snacking more since the lockdown and ordering more takeaways. Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 44 medical colleges, charities and campaign groups, said: ‘Several surveys have shown that we are all snacking more during lockdown and it’s likely that this will lead to weight gain.
‘This isn’t helped by food companies continuing to aggressively market their unhealthy foods to us to ensure they stay centre stage in our minds while we are a captive audience.’
Earlier this month the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, ordered health officials to trawl through the records of thousands of pandemic victims to determine whether obesity, ethnicity and gender raise the risk of death from coronavirus.
The review was commissioned after researchers at the University of Liverpool warned that obesity increased the risk of dying from the virus by 37 per cent.
WHY DOES DIABETES RAISE THE RISK OF COVID-19?
Diabetes puts people at a higher risk of developing severe COVID-19 because it makes the immune system weaker, scientists say.
The illness, which affects more than four million people in the UK, is caused by abnormal levels of sugar in the blood. For most people this takes the form of Type 2 diabetes, in which there is too much sugar in the blood.
This, researchers, say, thickens the blood and reduces its ability to carry substances around the body at speed.
Dr Hajira Dambha-Miller, a GP and specialist in diabetes, said a patient’s blood becomes ‘like treacle’ as a result of high sugar levels.
‘Physically, it’s harder for the immune system to get to the virus,’ she said. ‘The virus bugs do a lot of damage before the immune system even realises it’s there.’
Therefore, when someone is infected with the coronavirus, it may take longer for their body to respond and fight it off, and the response may be less effective when it does begin.
Their illness doesn’t make a diabetic person any more likely to catch the virus itself – that is indiscriminate – just less likely to be able to recover quickly.
Dr Dambha-Miller added: ‘When the body does kick in, it won’t work as it should do. The immune cells are damaged because they’ve been saturated in sugar for years and don’t work the way they should.’
The American Diabetes Association says it’s not clear if COVID-19 will pose a difference in risk between type 1 and type 2 diabetes.
But the risk of getting very sick from COVID-19 is likely to be lower if diabetes is well-managed no matter whether it is type 1 or type 2.
The Association explains that people who have diabetes often have other health problems, such as obesity, heart disease or high blood pressure, which in turn contribute more to their risk of dying with COVID-19.
The ADA said: ‘Having heart disease or other complications in addition to diabetes could worsen the chance of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, like other viral infections, because your body’s ability to fight off an infection is compromised.
‘Viral infections can also increase inflammation, or internal swelling, in people with diabetes. This is also caused by above-target blood sugars, and both could contribute to more severe complications.’
People of black African or Caribbean, or south Asian, backgrounds are more likely to develop diabetes and have also been found to be at more risk of dying if they catch the coronavirus.