These have been unbelievably stressful, unprecedented times.
I get it. I hear you—and I feel you—100%. That said, word of advice: it behooves you to start working towards a healthy weight NOW—rather than wait until January 1st or “later”.
Another virus (cold and flu) season—and one that may potentially include COVID-19—is just around the corner. Being at a healthy weight can significantly reduce your risk of experiencing serious COVID-19 complications, requiring hospitalization. Overweight/obesity is also associated with greater risk of getting the flu and/or other respiratory viruses. A 2018 study, published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases, found that obesity increases the severity and risk of complications from the flu, as well as a greater likelihood of viral shedding and spreading.1 Vaccines are not a panacea: a 2017 study, published in the Annals of the American Thoracic Society found that, vaccinated obese adults had twice the risk of flu or flu-like illness compared to healthy-weight adults.2
Since the pandemic began, dozens of studies have reported that many of the sickest COVID-19 patients have been people with obesity. In recent weeks, that link has come into sharper focus as large new population studies have cemented the association and demonstrated that even people who are overweight are at higher risk.5
What is a “healthy weight”?
Being at a “healthy weight” DOES NOT mean having a “perfect” body that is swimsuit-ready, supermodel thin or Instagrammable. Objective criteria for being at a “healthy weight” take into account BMI (Body Mass Index) and body fat percentage. Click here to calculate your BMI; then, click on this BMI chart to see what your BMI status is.
<18 = Underweight
18.5-25 = Normal
25 – 30 = Overweight
>30 = Obese
Body composition (body fat percentage) status
Click on this table for body fat percentage by sex and age.
For the average healthy adult, body fat percentage—regardless of age—is 15 to 20% for men and 20 to 25% for women. Women who have more than 32% body fat, and men with more than 25% body fat are at higher risk for disease.7
Connection Between Excess Weight and Greater COVID-19 Risk
Overweight and obesity are often associated with hypertension, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and chronic lung conditions, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD and emphysema; these health conditions have been identified as risk factors for experiencing severe respiratory illnesses, including the flu and COVID-19.8
COVID-19 is known to target—and damage—the lungs. Excess weight puts undue strain on the body, including the lungs, making it harder to breathe. (This is why COPD and sleep apnea are often associated with overweight / obesity).
Overweight and obesity are symptomatic of chronic inflammation in the body. Inflammation is actually a vital part of the healing process; it acts as a “first responder” when there is an attack on the immune system, like burning your hand on the stove or having a fever during an illness/infection. Inflammation, however, becomes problematic when it is chronic—and without obvious or acute pain, as in heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, persistent fatigue and/or acne. To learn more, read Chronic Inflammation and Immune Health. A chronically inflamed body is like a never-ending “Emergency!!” that drains your immune system’s resources; consequently, when there is a real threat, like the flu or COVID-19, the body is less able to mount a strong defense against pathogenic invaders.
Excess body fat—and where it is distributed—negatively impacts immune function. A Kaiser Permanente study of patients diagnosed with COVID-19 between Feb 13 and May 2, 2020, found that obesity was an independent risk factor strongly associated with higher risk of death.9 This risk was highest among men and those aged 60 or younger.10 In an editorial accompanying this study, John Hopkins University cardiologist Dr. David A. Kass wrote: “COVID-19 makes it hard to breathe, and excess fat [particularly, belly fat] only makes this worse. Abdominal obesity also makes it more difficult to breathe in a prone position that is favored to improve ventilation in patients with COVID-19. Excess fat may also prolong viral shedding.”11
However, even a modest weight loss of 5% to 10% of total body weight can improve blood sugar, cholesterol and blood sugar, which, in turn, boosts immunity. For example, if you weigh 200 pounds, a 5% weight loss is 10 pounds; a good start in moving toward a healthy weight and decreasing risk for chronic diseases.