Media Release

Covid warnings aren’t an effective obesity strategy

Government appeals to Britons to slim down in response to Covid-19 have not helped most people living with obesity to lose weight, according to new think-tank research.

The Social Market Foundation found that warnings about the potential health risks Covid-19 poses to people with obesity and overweight are largely ineffective as anti-obesity policies.  Instead of basing policy on such appeals to individual action, policymakers should take a “whole system” approach on obesity, a new SMF report concludes.

A survey conducted for the report reveals that 28% of people who describe themselves as living with obesity say they are currently taking steps to lose weight because of the pandemic, the SMF found.

That is slightly higher than the 20% of the general population taking steps to lose weight because of the coronavirus, but still indicates that Government messages on overweight and Covid have done little to help people with obesity address their condition.

Over a third (37%) of those living with obesity report that they have not yet taken steps to lose weight in response to Covid but are thinking about doing so. Close to three in ten (28%) reported that the coronavirus would not lead them to reduce their weight.

Launching the Government’s obesity strategy this year, Boris Johnson said: “If we all do our bit, we can reduce our health risks and protect ourselves against coronavirus – as well as taking pressure off the NHS.”

The SMF, a cross-party charity, said such comments, and the Government obesity strategy overall, place too much emphasis on individual willpower and not enough on the environmental and economic aspects of obesity and overweight.

Ministers should also do more to tackle the stigma around obesity and educate the public on its multiple causes, the report said. The Government should make clear that weight bias and obesity discrimination have no place in education or workplaces, the SMF said.

While Government moves to promote weight-loss apps and better food labelling could help some people, a “whole-system” approach to obesity should consider the way transport options, town planning, “food deserts”, mental health issues and even crime can contribute to obesity, the SMF said.

The pandemic and lockdown restrictions appear to have made it harder for some people to access resources and support to help them reduce their weight.

Among people with obesity surveyed in an SMF/Opinium poll, 27% said the pandemic had meant they ate worse diet, and 31% said it had led to them doing less exercise.

Meanwhile, among those self-describing as having obesity, just over a third (35%) said they had a medical condition that makes weight loss difficult.

The SMF/Opinium survey data also show that public attitudes towards obesity and overweight are “conflicted and at times inconsistent”.

Although a significant majority (73%) of people surveyed agreed that “obesity is a complex condition with many causes, and people need access to a range of support options to lose weight”, close to half (46%) also agree that “people that live with obesity only have themselves to blame for their unhealthy weight”.

While close to two thirds (65%) agree that people need help to lose weight, just 32% believe the NHS should provide more people with surgical help to lose weight, such as through fitting gastric bands.

Scott Corfe, SMF Research Director said:

“Warnings about Covid risks and obesity are well-meaning but largely ineffective – they just aren’t enough to help people living with obesity and overweight take action on their weight.

 “The idea that obesity is purely a matter of individual choice and willpower is temptingly simple but the facts are more complicated than that. Low incomes, poor transport, a lack of green spaces and safe streets, mental health problems –  these are all factors that make it harder for people to lose weight, and obesity policies need to take more account of that.”

“Too much of our public conversation about obesity still stigmatises people with obesity. That helps create health inequalities and makes obesity policies less effective. Ministers should help to educate the public in the complex causes of obesity and make clear that weight bias and obesity discrimination have no place in education, health care and the workplace.”

Avideh Nazeri, Director of Clinical, Medical & Regulatory Affairs at Novo Nordisk UK said:

“The pandemic has underlined the urgent need for a better understanding of the science of obesity.

“Obesity is influenced by many factors, including genetics, physiology and environment. Policies need to reflect its complexity to help prevent obesity and support people”.

Sarah Le Brocq, Director, Obesity UK said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lack of support people living with obesity have access to across the UK. Whilst the pandemic has highlighted the increased risk of severe consequences of COVID-19 for those people living with obesity, what it hasn’t done is show what the Government are trying to do to support those people. Whilst we know the obesity strategy was released in response to the pandemic, it focuses on population level activities and not those at greatest risk with a BMI over 40.

“Access to weight management services is sporadic across the UK and the quality of those services vary hugely.

“What we need to do is understand the complexities of obesity, so we stop talking solely about personal responsibility. Provide access to weight management services to everyone that wants them, and stop perpetuating weight stigma. Evidence shows us that weight stigma has a negative outcome on health outcomes, not positive ones, so we need to end weight stigma.”


  • For media enquiries, please contact Linus Pardoe, SMF Impact Officer, – 07402 576995


  • The SMF report, Obesity and coronavirus – where next for policy?, is published today at Key statistics and policy recommendations from the report can be found below.
  • Novo Nordisk has provided sponsorship to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) to fund the research and production of the report ‘Obesity and coronavirus – where next for policy?’. Novo Nordisk has had no influence on the content of the report and full editorial control remains the sole responsibility of the SMF.
  • The report draws on an Opinium survey of 2000 adults conducted between 11th and 15th September 2020.
  • Novo Nordisk provided sponsorship to the Social Market Foundation (SMF) to fund the Opinium survey questions referred to in this press release and the report ‘Obesity and coronavirus – where next for policy?’. The SMF finalised these questions with input from Opinium. Novo Nordisk has had no influence over the use of this data, including the selection of the results and analysis of the data.
  • The SMF, a registered charity, declares all its sources of funding and retains editorial independence over all its outputs.


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