Study shows obese people at 48% higher risk of dying from COVID-19

The novel coronavirus may be especially risky for people who are obese, according to a new study published in the journal "Obesity Reviews."

A team of researchers, led by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill Gillings School of Public Health obesity researcher and professor Dr. Barry Popkin, set out to measure how excess weight can impact what happens when a person contracts COVID-19.

Popkin says what they found shocked him.

This study comes at a time many Americans are eating more and moving less because of the pandemic.

"We're eating more junk food," Popkin says.  "We're consuming more unhealthy beverages, and we're drinking a lot more alcohol."

Popkin and his team review dozens of studies on obesity and the coronavirus.

They found people with obesity (BMI over 30) were at 113% greater risk of being hospitalized,

They are 74% more likely to be admitted to the ICU, and they had a 48% higher risk of dying from complications of the virus than normal-weight individuals.

"It tells us there are things going on with obesity, which occurs over a very long period, that go beyond the disease it's linked with," Popkin says.

The problem, he says, is not only that obesity can open the door for other COVID-19 risk factors, such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease.

Popkin says excess belly fat can put pressure on the lungs, making it harder to breathe.

Obesity can also lead to metabolic changes in the body, triggering inflammation that can weaken the immune system, making it harder for someone to fight off an infection.

Popkin says excess weight may also impact how well vaccines like the flu shot work.

"If you're obese, the flu vaccine doesn't work as well for you as it does for normal-weight individuals," he says.  "In fact, at some of my hospitals in the area I live in, they were giving obese individuals two shots, not one."

Popkin says even dropping a small amount of weight can help lower your risk of complications from the virus.

"We have a lot of studies that show even losing a percentage of your body fat, losing 5 pounds, losing 3 pounds, will impact you," Popkin says.  "Every little effect, of losing some weight, really has a bigger effect on health than we ever imagined."

Popkin, a nutritionist, says there is no quick fix, but we can start making better choices.

"Do your best," he says. "Try to really think more about your diet.  Think about your long-term health."

Popkin warns if not careful, we could see continued growth in the obesity rate during the pandemic.

"We're not active," Popkin says. "We shouldn't be going out, socializing in the same way and the cost of healthy food versus unhealthy food, it is an issue."