David Staples: Public health leaders failed to deliver crucial message during COVID. Why?

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Wash your hands repeatedly, they told us. Don’t touch your face. Don’t get too close to anyone in public.

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Wear a mask, they ordered us. Don’t have friends or family over to your house. You’re forbidden to go to a restaurant or any major public gathering.

Politicians and chief medical health officers have constantly given us advice and restricted our behaviour during the COVID pandemic.

But on one critical issue they’ve said next to nothing and done worse. That matter is the collective imperative for us all to eat better and exercise more in the face of a disease that hammers hardest on the least healthy.

Our leaders through the pandemic were exceptionally silent when it came to this critical aspect of our lives.

That relative silence has endured even as major public health organizations from the World Health Organization to the Centres for Disease Control in the United States have long acknowledged that poor health — which is often correlated with obesity — is a major risk factor when combined with COVID.

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A major international study found that obese individuals are at increased risk for COVID-19 infection (46 per cent higher), hospitalization (113 per cent higher), ICU admission (74 per cent higher), and mortality (48 per cent higher).

The World Obesity Federation has found that COVID-19 death rates are 10 times higher in countries where more than half of the adult population is classified as overweight, the British Medical Journal has reported.

Yet even with such fearful facts to motivate us, far more of us saw our physical health decline during COVID rather than experienced any improvement.

The rates of overweight and obesity have shot up , with 35 per cent of American adults now obese.

Even before the pandemic, 27 per cent of Canadians were obese, with an additional 37 per cent overweight. That number has also gone up, with a Dalhousie University study finding that 16 per cent of Canadians lost weight during the pandemic, but 42 per cent gained weight, with 37 per cent of that number gaining more than 10 pounds.

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Prof. Sarah Nutter, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Victoria and an expert with Obesity Canada, agreed with my assessment that little had been said by public health officials on this issue during the pandemic, but noted there were nonetheless endless admonishments to lose weight because of the risk of COVID in mainstream media reports and ads.

Nutter says this mainstream message wasn’t necessarily helpful, not when weight loss and gain is such a complex issue. “For example, a focus on trying to encourage people to engage in weight loss behaviour when at the same time researchers have known for quite a while that weight loss isn’t necessarily successful long term. Ninety-five per cent of people who lose weight gain it back and more within three to five years.”

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She worries that a focus on weight as a COVID risk factor could accidentally lead to the shaming of people with higher body weights, including the notion that they had it coming if they got really ill with COVID.

I can be a judgment monster when it comes to weight gain, both with myself and with others, but Nutter makes some excellent points. I say this as someone who for two decades tried to lose weight through diet and activity but slowly gained 40 pounds. I’ve reversed that trend during the pandemic, but only through an obsessive focus.

My immense difficulty when it comes to eating better and exercising more has highlighted for me all the forces aligned against healthy living, namely the abundance of food laced with sugar and salt to enslave our guts and to rev up the pleasure centres of our brains, as well as the difficulties in finding time and avenues to exercise during a busy life.

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The factors leading to poor health only got worse during the lockdown, with all us getting locked out of arenas, rec centres and gyms for months at a time.

With our system essentially rigged against better living, it’s little wonder so many of us had lockdown weight gain.

In this regard, I have sympathy for public health leaders if they struggled to find the right message on the dangers of obesity and COVID.

With everyone so stressed out, how likely was it that huge numbers of us would embark on a difficult path of self-improvement?

Nonetheless, our leaders needed to do more, to find some way to persuade, nudge and enable us individually, collectively and systemically towards better eating and exercise habits.

That was their job during COVID. They have so far failed on this count.

dstaples@postmedia.com

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