THE COVID-19 pandemic has thrust the obesity epidemic once again into the spotlight, revealing that obesity is no longer a disease that harms just in the long run but one that can have acutely devastating effects. New studies and information confirm doctors’ suspicion that this virus takes advantage of a disease that our current U.S. health care system is unable to get under control.
In most recent news, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 73% of nurses who have been hospitalized from COVID-19 had obesity. In addition, a recent study found that obesity could interfere with the effectiveness of a COVID-19 vaccine.
I am an obesity specialist and clinical physician working on the front lines of obesity in primary care at the University of Virginia Health System. In the past, I often found myself warning my patients that obesity could take years off their life. Now, more than ever, this warning has become verifiable.
More damage than believed
Initially physicians believed that having obesity increased only your risk of getting sicker from COVID-19, not your chance of being infected in the first place. Now, newer analysis shows that not only does obesity increase your risk of being sicker and dying from COVID-19; obesity increases your risk of getting infected in the first place.
In March 2020, observational studies noted hypertension, diabetes and coronary artery disease as the most common other conditions – or co-morbidities – in patients with more severe COVID-19 disease. But it was the editors of Obesity journal who first raised the alarm on April 1, 2020 that obesity would likely prove to be an independent risk factor for more severe effects of COVID-19 infection.
Additionally, two studies including nearly 10,000 patients have shown that patients who have both COVID-19 and obesity have a higher risk of death at days 21 and 45 compared to patients with a normal body mass index, or BMI.
And a study published in September, 2020 reported higher rates of obesity in COVID-19 patients who are critically ill and require intubation.
It is becoming overwhelmingly evident from these studies and others that those with obesity are facing a clear and present danger.
Stigma and lack of understanding
Obesity is an interesting disease. It is one that many physicians talk about, often in frustration that their patients cannot prevent or reverse it with the oversimplified treatment plan that we have been taught in our initial training; “Eat less and exercise more.”
It is also a disease that causes problems physically, such as sleep apnea and joint pain. It also affects one’s mind and spirit due to societal and medical professionals’ bias against those with obesity. It can even adversely affect the size of your paycheck. Can you imagine the outcry if the headline reads “Patients with high blood pressure earn less”?
We doctors and researchers have understood for quite some time the long-term consequences of excess weight and obesity. We currently recognise