Clinical Center News
Fall 2021

Obesity shown to be a significant factor in COVID-19 complications

Nutrition researcher offers sobering statistics

3D illustration of fat cells
3D illustration of fat, or adipose cells. (Getty Images)

People with obesity have an increased risk of catching the virus as well as intensified adverse effects - this topic was front and center at the Obesity and COVID-19 – Obesity Research Task Force Symposium hosted by the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in September.

Dr. Barry M. Popkin, the W.R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of nutrition from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health, presented the lecture COVID-19 and Obesity: A Global Perspective. Popkin, who established and led the NIH-funded UNC Interdisciplinary Obesity Center, described a sobering worldwide situation. Studies from across the globe have shown that people with obesity were 40% more likely to contract COVID-19, and had a much higher likelihood of needing ventilation. Even more alarmingly, the mortality rate for this demographic is more than four times higher than the general population.

One study from England showed a clear relationship between body mass index (BMI) and COVID-19. Patients with a BMI of 23 or higher had an almost linear risk of being hospitalized – and the correlation to intensive care showed an even steeper slope.

"Individuals with overweight and obesity are at much greater risk of becoming COVID-positive and facing all the health risks of getting COVID [and] increased mortality," confirmed Popkin.

This is a troubling connection, as the pandemic itself has likely exacerbated weight gain. Internationally, there have been large decreases in physical activity, with some countries enforcing tight lockdowns to limit the spread of COVID-19 experiencing this even more acutely. The pandemic itself has caused huge declines in transportation activities and diet changes, causing increased risk of catching the virus as well as intensified adverse effects.

Is there anything that can be done to slow down this dangerous cycle? Popkin suggested one example. Peru has managed to buck this trend of unhealthy eating in the face of the pandemic; Peruvians have been eating fewer pre-packaged foods and more fruit and vegetables. This was attributed to very strong local messaging that eating healthy is important in protecting against COVID -19.

In addition to masks and hand hygiene, Popkin described how striving for a healthier lifestyle may help protect against COVID-19.

Find out more about this lecture event.

- Dan Silber

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