Obesity and COVID-19 Insights

Obesity and COVID-19 Insights
Natalie Stein

Exercise, Fitness & Nutrition Expert | Lark Health

As the world continues to grapple with COVID-19, we are learning more every day about the condition. Millions of Americans want to know their risk and how to lower it, and now it looks like there is one risk factor that affects many people – but that many people can do something about. That risk factor is obesity.

Effect of Obesity on COVID-19 Risk

Since the early days of the pandemic in the U.S., the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have noted that obesity is among the conditions that put certain people at higher risk for more serious cases of COVID-19. Morbid obesity, or a body mass index (BMI) over 40 kg/m2, has been on that list for most of the pandemic. In June, the CDC expanded the description to a BMI over 30 kg/m2, which is the BMI that marks the lower end of obesity.

Higher Risk of Serious COVID-19 Cases

A new study finds that obesity is even riskier than previously thought. Researchers from University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, as well as colleagues at the World Bank and in Saudi Arabia, analyzed data from 75 previous studies from multiple countries. The results were convincing, with obesity linked to:

  • 113% greater risk of hospitalization,
  • 74% increased risk of ICU admission, and
  • 48% greater risk of death

for obese COVID-19 patients compared to non-obese ones.

Concerns over Vaccine Effectiveness

The world is eagerly awaiting a COVID-19 vaccine, hoping it will allow us to return to our pre-COVID-19 way of life, or at least bring a new normal that includes on-campus schooling, athletic events with in-person crowds, and children playing with friends. With all the concerns over developing an effective vaccine, there is an additional worry for the obese population: it may be less effective.

Vaccines generally work by inducing an immune response, such as antibody production, to the disease-causing agent (or some characteristic or part of it). In COVID-19, the agent or pathogen is the novel coronavirus. 

Obese individuals have a weaker antibody response to flu vaccines. Plus, obese patients are more likely to get the flu than normal-weight people even when their antibody levels are as high. It seems likely that responses to the COVID-19 vaccine will have similar patterns and obese individuals will not be as well protected.

Effects of COVID-19 on Obesity

There is another relationship between COVID-19 and obesity. Obesity does not just make COVID-19 more threatening. COVID-19 can make obesity more serious. While the “gaining the COVID-19 [pounds]” is supposed to be a joke, it stems from reality. People are gaining weight during the pandemic.

Weight gain makes sense now as people are stuck at home.

  • Snacking can be a constant activity as the kitchen is always right there.
  • Processed foods and restaurant meals are some of the most common foods to have delivered…and are some of the best for gaining weight. 
  • Gyms are closed and workouts can be more challenging to do.
  • There is less energy burned from activities of daily living, such walking around malls while shopping.

All of these help explain weight gain or trouble losing weight during the COVID-19 pandemic, and they help contribute to a higher risk for obesity-related COVID-19 complications.

Why the Obesity Epidemic Needs to Be Addressed

Obesity has been in the news for decades, but the COVID-19 pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to get serious about preventing and treating it. Obesity is not about how someone fits into their clothes. Obesity is a serious medical condition that the American Medical Association recognizes as a disease.

Obesity increases risk for chronic conditions such as hypertension, type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, certain types of cancer, arthritis, and more. It alters the immune system. And, it appears to raise risk for today’s most-watched disease: COVID-19.

Speaking of pandemics, obesity affects 2 in 5 U.S. adults, and another 1 in 3 Americans are overweight. Worldwide, 2 billion adults and counting are obese or overweight. Getting obesity under control would be a public health feat comparable to improving hygiene in the nineteenth century or implementing polio and other vaccines in the twentieth century.

Scalable Approach to Obesity Treatment

Large scale efforts will be needed to get a handle on obesity, as weight loss is difficult to achieve and maintain on one’s own. Population-based strategies to reduce obesity have included snack and fat taxes, marketing regulations on high-calorie foods and to children, and policies promoting healthier foods. These can be controversial and difficult to implement. Counseling for obesity prevention and management can help, but access to such services is limited.

Lark is a digital health coach that can be an important ally in the fight against obesity. Lark supports weight control by helping patients make healthy behavior changes and establish habits that . It is powered by artificial intelligence (AI) and is infinitely scalable to offer personalized coaching to each individual. Lark is available to patients, 24/7, on their smartphones.

Lark uses behavior change strategies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), to guide patients in making small changes in their lifestyle choices. Emphasizing healthy food choices, increased physical activity, and self-awareness rather than strict calorie or carb-counting, Lark provides education, tracking features, and personalized insights to keep users on track. Patients can use Lark solely for weight loss, or choose to lose weight while managing their chronic condition while using Lark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP), Lark Diabetes Care, or Lark Hypertension

Digital health is of utmost importance during the COVID-19 pandemic, when hospitals are concerned about being overwhelmed and patients are reluctant to go to healthcare facilities. Lark is not only infinitely scalable and easy to implement among a covered population, but it also offers prime examples of how digital health can help during the pandemic and beyond.

  • Lark helps patients lose weight and manage chronic conditions, which can help keep them out of emergency rooms and hospitals due to complications.
  • Lark allows patients to get care without going in person to clinics and taking on the risk of getting COVID-19.
  • Lark frees up personnel and physical resources due to providing care remotely.

Evidence is suggesting that obesity is a risk factor for poor COVID-19 outcomes, and so far, obesity continues to be common. It is preventable and treatable, though, and a digital product such as Lark may be one answer. It has proven results in weight loss, allows for care to be delivered remotely, and is infinitely scalable.