Obesity Increases Risk of COVID-19 Death, Public Health Action Needed: Doctors

August 31, 2020 Updated: September 2, 2020

Scientists are urging the government to strengthen public health efforts to address the obesity epidemic in the battle against COVID-19 and the CCP virus, as studies find that people with obesity have higher risks of contracting the virus, ending up in the hospital, and dying from COVID-19.

“Obesity and chronic diseases like diabetes were already huge threats before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has ripped the cloak off to reveal just how bad they are,” Dr. William Li wrote in an email interview.

“These conditions make it more likely someone would die if they are infected by the coronavirus,” said Dr. Li, author of “Eat to Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself.”

Obesity is associated with “numerous underlying risk factors for COVID-19, including hypertension, heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes,” according to researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who analyzed data from 75 studies conducted globally from January and June involving 399,461 patients with the CCP virus.

They found that being obese increases the chance of hospitalization by 113 percent and the chances of admittance to the intensive care unit by 74 percent. More concerning is that people with obesity have a 48 percent higher risk of dying from COVID-19.

There are also concerns that a COVID-19 vaccine may not work as well for people with obesity as a result of a weakened immune response, just as the flu vaccine is less effective in this high-risk group.

“Vaccinated obese adults are twice as likely to develop influenza and ILI [influenza-like illness] compared with healthy weight adults,” according to a 2017 study published in the International Journal of Obesity.

Dr. Nicole Avena, assistant professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine who is an expert in the fields of nutrition, diet, and addictions, said in an email to The Epoch Times, “If we know that certain conditions, like obesity, put people at risk for complications from COVID-19, we should be doing much, much more to address them.”

“We should be helping people learn more about ways to eat healthier, get more exercise, and reduce obesity,” Avena stated, since wearing masks, physical distancing, and frequent hand washing or use of hand sanitizers may “not be enough for people with underlying conditions.”


The obesity rate in the United States continues to rise despite the growing volume of research and information on healthy living and eating. Obesity was declared an epidemic in 1999.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 39.8 percent of American adults and 18.5 percent of children and adolescents of ages 2 to 19 are obese. The prevalence of obesity is greatest among blacks (50 percent), then Hispanics (45 percent), whites (42 percent), and Asians (17 percent).

As this increasing trend continues into 2030, researchers of a study in the New England Journal of Medicine project that 50 percent of adults in America will be obese, and “about a quarter will have severe obesity.”

Body mass index (BMI) is used by health care practitioners to assess the risk of certain diseases that may occur in people with more body fat. It calculates body fat based on a person’s weight and height.

People with a BMI of 30 or higher are considered obese. Obesity is categorized into three classes: obesity (BMI of 30–34), severe obesity (BMI of 35–39), and morbid obesity (BMI of 40 or higher). People who are only considered overweight have a BMI of 25–29.

BMI is a useful measure for most people, except for those with a muscular build and older adults with muscle loss.

Government Actions

Epoch Times Photo
People wait for their orders at a fast-food stand in downtown Santiago, Chile, on Oct. 16, 2018. The nutritional prospect of the Chilean population is “critical” due to its high levels of obesity and the increase in undernourishment, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization stated. (Martin Bernetti/AFP via Getty Images)

Although many studies have found obesity to be a major risk factor for severe illness from COVID-19, there has been little to no response from either the government or the medical community to address it. “It seems that little effort is being targeted on reducing the known risk factor of obesity in our country, which is sad,” Avena said.

“The call to action is for government and the medical community to deliver a clarion call that good health matters and taking steps to boost our body’s health defenses through diet and lifestyle—before disease develops—is one of the most important steps each and every one of us can take,” Li said.

“Greater investment in educating people about healthy food, making it widely available and enjoyable to consume, can change the game of public health in this country.”

Researchers from the UNC–Chapel Hill study recommend policies that include promoting healthier food consumption and taxing highly processed foods and drinks while limiting the promotion and marketing of such foods to help curb obesity. Several countries including Chile, Denmark, and Hungary have already passed taxation laws to decrease the consumption of junk foods (foods high in sugar, salt, saturated fats, and refined carbohydrates).

In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched his “Better Health” campaign in July to combat the country’s obesity crisis. Johnson became severely ill from COVID-19 and believes his excess weight (BMI of 36) was partly to blame.

His campaign includes a ban on junk food advertisements before 9 p.m., a display of calories on menus in restaurants, a ban on sales of unhealthy snacks at checkouts, and ending the “buy one get one free” deals on unhealthy foods.

Nutritional Suggestions

Li says the top three foods people should avoid are “processed meat, artificially sweetened soda, and salad dressing containing saturated fat and artificial preservatives.”

Consumption of artificially sweetened soft drinks is “associated with an increased risk of stroke and dementia.” These beverages are often sweetened with zero-calorie sugar substitutes—aspartame, saccharin, acesulfame, sucralose, or neotame—that are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar.

Jerlyn Jones, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says that one of the key nutritional messages on healthy eating is to “limit your intake of high sugary foods and sweetened beverages” since the calories from these foods aren’t “as efficient as they should be for our bodies.”

Jones says foods high in saturated fats and trans fat should also be limited or avoided if possible. Trans fat is found in mostly “packaged foods or bakery packaged foods” that prolong the shelf life, and by limiting your intake of these foods, “you’re on your way to probably losing the pounds that you want to lose and help you minimize your risk of having weight gain in the future,” she told The Epoch Times.

This is the same for low-fat foods, that have only “reduced the amount of saturated fats” but increased other ingredients such as sodium or sugar. Jones says it’s important to read the ingredients on the package.

While eating healthy is an important step to curbing obesity, Jones also recommends “30 minutes of moderate movement five days a week,” getting enough sleep, and managing stress.