Dr Aseem Malhotra, a leading London cardiologist and a founder of the pressure group Action on Sugar, said that while exercise is good for health it does nothing to reduce weight and that the real public health crisis is linked to ultra-processed fast foods.
Dr Malhotra, author of the Pioppi Diet, which advocates a Mediterranean-style regime for health and fitness, said thousands of lives have been unnecessarily lost to the coronavirus pandemic because so many Britons carry excess weight.
Last week, it was reported that Boris Johnson is preparing a “much more interventionist” drive to tackle obesity as part of the fight against coronavirus.
As the Government calls for more people to walk, cycle and stay off public transport, Dr Malhotra said simply increasing exercise is not the solution. He believes the PM needs to put poor diet at the top of the agenda and make radical – and sometimes unpopular – changes to tackle the issue.
He said: “The big issue which has been ignored for a very long time is excess body fat and this is linked to junk food. I’m really pleased to learn Boris Johnson is coming to terms with this problem by leading a public health drive with the ‘war on fat’. Research has indicated obesity may be a significant factor in determining the severity of Covid-19 cases.
“Poor diet is responsible for 11 million deaths globally which is more than the number linked to physical inactivity, smoking and alcohol combined. And if we didn’t have this problem, thousands of people would not have perished unnecessarily because of the virus.
“If we are going to combat this problem and protect our NHS from another viral pandemic the focus should not be just about exercise.
“We really need to curb the consumption of junk foods with regulatory interventions.
“Yes, obesity is a problem in this country – one in four people is obese, 60 percent of adults are overweight or obese – but really what is going on is that many people who have a normal BMI or who are deemed to be a ‘healthy’ weight have excess body fat. It is estimated 80 percent of British adults have excess body fat – even many of those with a normal BMI – and people who have conditions associated with excess body fat are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and even diseases such as cancer and dementia.
“This needs to be addressed in a more robust way by the Prime Minister.”
Mr Johnson is thought to have stepped up his campaign following his brush with death after contracting the virus.
Referring to the “war on fat”, his official spokesman said last week: “As we have outlined, this government will invest in preventive and personalised solutions to ill-health, helping people to live healthier and more active lives.”
However, No 10 denied the PM is considering increasing the sugar tax, which is aimed at getting food firms to reformulate their products.
Dr Malhotra, an expert in the prevention, diagnosis and management of heart disease, said the PM should target the industry and the consumption of ultraprocessed food, which is now more tha half of the British diet.
He said: “We effectively tackled tobacco consumption by taxing cigarettes, with public smoking bans and by banning advertising.We need to apply the same principles to junk food – make those sorts of foods more expensive by taxing them and make healthy food more affordable.
“We also need to ban junk food advertising and the sale of such foods in hospitals and leisure centres.This needs a regulation approach from the government.”
Dr Malhotra also warned of the close links between sections of the country’s food industry and Public Health England.
He said: “There needs to be a complete dissociation from companies that endorse and promote ultra-processed foods from Public Health England and the current Eat Well guide, which is supposed to represent a healthy, balanced diet but, unfortunately, has junk food on there. Our food environment has become saturated with junk food – even in hospitals.”
Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries yesterday called on the public to think about diet and exercise to improve their health during the pandemic.
She said: “Type 2 diabetes is something which many of us in the population can perhaps do something about to reduce our risk.”