The Next Global Health Crisis?

Many American states, along with countries around the world, chose to shut down their economies and ask their citizens to stay at home to fight COVID-19. This social distancing and isolation may have led to the “perfect storm” of conditions to create another, longer-lasting health crisis.

What happens when people are asked to stop working, stay at home and stay away from each other for an extended period of time? That was precisely the mitigation scheme unleashed on societies by their public health authorities and governments.

With the exception of a few groups of “essential workers,” including front-line health workers, who were stressed, overworked and isolated by their workload, most people around the world are only now leaving their homes to try to resume their lives. They’ve spent months alone, emotionally stressed and financially struggling. Their daily routines were thrown for a loop.

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For many, this led to a situation that may spur another global health crisis. Physical activity habits were severely stressed and eating habits suffered as well. According to a research team from the University of Copenhagen and Aarhus University, the next health effect we may feel as a result of the COVID-19 coronavirus will have more to do with the lockdowns than with the virus itself.

The Danish team says that the mitigation techniques used around the world created levels of psycho-social insecurity that may well result in a global obesity crisis. They believe that we need to employ counter measures soon if we are to protect the public from both the virus and the threat to our metabolic health.

Large numbers of people became suddenly physically inactive when lockdowns began. They weren’t working, so money stress was an issue. For many, any semblance of good eating habits were the first thing to go. Alcohol and processed food consumption went up significantly.

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We need to invest in both research around these issues and in community and national strategies to get people eating healthily, feeling happier and more in control of their lives and returning to, or starting, physically active lifestyles. The team shared their concerns about a global obesity epidemic in the scientific journal Nature Reviews Endocrinology.

Associate Professor Christoffer Clemmensen of the Novo Nordisk FOundation Center for Basic Metabolic Research (CBMR) at the University of Copenhagen, thinks governments and public health authorities may have been shortsighted in their approach to lockdowns.

“We are concerned that policy makers do not fully understand how strategies such as lockdowns and business closures could fuel the rise of obesity — a chronic disease with severe health implications, but with few reliable treatment options.”

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Isolation, fear, stress and inactivity

They lay their case out fairly simply. They note that there is ample research reinforcing the idea those with limited financial resources are more likely to resort to eating energy-rich, highly-processed foods. These foods also stimulate people’s appetites, causing them to eat far more calories than they actually need.

“It is likely that more people will turn to these forms of food, as more people lose their jobs and experience economic hardship,” says co-author Professor Michael Bang Petersen, from the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University.

Add to that the increased anxiety resulting from limitations of social interaction and physical distancing and things get worse. Food behaviors are negatively impacted by feelings of isolation and loneliness, not to mention confinement and feelings of loss of control. It’s practically a formula for overeating.

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When we ask people to stay home and only go out when necessary, many will significantly reduce physical activity. This compounds the negative effect of poorer eating habits.

Is the cure worse than the virus, metabolically speaking?

We still have much to learn and understand about how our mental health and socioeconomic status influences our risk of becoming obese, according to one study co-author. Professor Thorkild Sorensen of CBMR at the University of Copenhagen said “We know that there are links between obesity and a person’s class and mental health, but we don’t exactly understand how they make an impact.”

While all the interconnections, causes and effects remain somewhat unclear and in need of more research, all three co-authors agree on one thing. We can expect rising rates of unemployment, widespread emotional stress and physical distancing to lead to rising rates of obesity across the globe.

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The authors are urging public health officials, policymakers and governments to think harder about their COVID-19 mitigation and containment strategies. They are encouraging at least some focus on metabolic health.

Their ideal strategies would protect populations from the virus while at the same time helping citizens remain active, healthy and happy. Of course, that should have been on table when these strategies were being developed at the beginning of the pandemic. Better late than never, I suppose!

Keep the faith and keep after it!

Related Content –
The Unintended Consequences Of COVID-19 Coronavirus Social Distancing
COVID-19 Coronavirus Causing Unprecedented Mental And Emotional Trauma Worldwide
Childhood Obesity Crisis Worsened By COVID-19 Coronavirus Lockdowns

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Journal Reference – Christoffer Clemmensen, Michael Bang Petersen, Thorkild I. A. Sørensen. Will the COVID-19 pandemic worsen the obesity epidemic? Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 2020; 16 (9): 469 DOI: 10.1038/s41574-020-0387-z

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