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The Obesity Epidemic Made Our COVID Pandemic Much Worse


The American public wasn’t healthy going into the coronavirus pandemic, and it’s not getting any healthier on lockdown.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 42 percent of Americans qualified as “obese” in 2017-2018, a sharp rise from 31 percent in 1999-2000. More than 70 percent of adults 20 years old and older are overweight.

“Unless and until we do something about our obesity epidemic, it can continue rising,” Dr. Kenneth Moritsugu, who served as acting surgeon general under President George W. Bush, told The Federalist. “That has both a short term and a long term negative impact on the health and well-being of our country.”

In the short term, Americans are already dying of obesity.

The CDC has included obesity (individuals with a body mass index (BMI) between 30 kg/m² and 40 kg/m²) and severe obesity (individuals with a BMI of greater than 40 kg/m²) on its list of underlying conditions defining individuals at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19. In fact, the CDC warns obesity may triple an individual’s risk of hospitalization.

Obesity, the CDC reports, is also often the culprit of conditions leading to premature death such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain types of cancer. Several of these are in themselves serious underlying conditions that raise individuals’ susceptibility to the novel coronavirus.

In the months after the coronavirus erupted into a global health crisis, it has become clear the risk obesity carries for individuals who become infected.

“Since the pandemic began,” Science Magazine reported in September, “dozens of studies have reported that many of the sickest COVID-19 patients have been people with obesity.” In one study published in August cited by the flagship journal, overweight patients stricken with COVID-19 were 113 percent more likely to be hospitalized compared to patients of an otherwise healthy weight. Obese patients were found 74 percent more likely to end up in intensive care units (ICU) and 48 percent more likely to die.

Dr. Tim Logemann of the Wausau Aspirus Hospital Cardiologist and Obesity Treatment Program in Wisconsin told The Federalist the coronavirus-attributed death toll, nearing 500,000 as of this writing according to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, would be far lower absent the obesity epidemic.

While COVID-19 is a disease of inflammation, Logemann explained, cells in obese people are already inflamed, lowering the body’s immune response even in the absence of pre-existing conditions that routinely lead to severe or even lethal complications from the novel virus. When mechanical problems that arise from obesity, such as difficulty breathing, are combined with a virus that impairs a person’s respiratory function, the level of risk rises even higher.

“Young people would see much less deaths,” Logemann said, if more people in the nation were at a healthier weight. Moritsugu said he did not believe there was enough data to establish the cause-effect correlation between obesity and excess coronavirus deaths, but conceded that “intuitively what are now seeing is that people who are obese are not doing that well and also die at higher rates than people who are not obese and overweight.”

Moritsugu added that a good example of discovering those who were obese struggled harder with coronavirus was by putting patients in face-down positions, which forced individuals to lift their back and not their chest to breathe.

While Americans suffer exacerbated consequences of the obesity epidemic in the short term, Moritsugu stressed solutions to the problem require long-term thinking.

“Knowing society and human nature, it’s got to be multi-dimensional. It has got to have a commitment at a federal level to reduce obesity and overweight,” Moritsugu said, but at the end of the day, “it all starts at home.”

Pandemic lockdowns, however, have only increased worry the nation is headed in the wrong direction to tackle this problem. According to a global Ipsos poll out last month, two in five Americans reported gaining weight amid lockdowns. Those surveyed said they put on an average of more than 14 pounds. The United States, Ipsos found, ranks seventh out of 30 countries in terms of pandemic weight gain.

Perhaps more worrisome, most Americans appear relatively unconcerned about this. The same survey found less than half of Americans said they believed there was a link between obesity and adverse outcomes from the novel coronavirus.

“We need to understand that the current food supply is making most of us sick, and obesity is a disease,” Logemann told The Federalist, and emphasized the “eat less, exercise more” approach was failing. Americans need to eat better, eat whole foods, and learn to live a healthy lifestyle.

A growing cultural movement stemming from the left, however, threatens to undermine efforts to combat the obesity epidemic that lies at the root of nearly every other major public health problem facing the country. Part of the population appears to be giving up entirely on weight loss, aggressively demanding society amend its standards from scientific acceptance of what constitutes healthy living.

The popular women’s magazine Cosmopolitan debuted its February cover story at the start of the new year featuring visibly obese influencers who graced the front page with the text, “this is healthy.”

The story, headlined “11 Women Who Prove Wellness Isn’t ‘One Size Fits All,'” chronicled the struggles of several internet personalities with their self-image of health and beauty.

“‘Healthy’ can be a loaded word,’ the women’s fashion magazine opened its cover piece. “We asked these women to open up about their personal journeys to reclaim ‘healthy’ as their own.”

In December, fan outrage ensued when pop star Lizzo went on a juice cleanse.

“Seeing you promote diet culture is breaking my heart,” one user wrote, while others claimed they felt “betrayed” Lizzo would do something productive for her health.

The episode illustrated the dangerous fragility of modern culture erasing the distinction between body-shaming and advocacy of a healthier lifestyle, the latter of which is desperately needed from the very influencers who are becoming rich and famous with feel-good activism who reject both. The effort to pursue blanket body-acceptance and reject objective standards of health might be well-meaning, but it’s counterproductive and even detrimental.

Weight is an emotional issue, for those who carry too much of it and even those who carry too little, complicating efforts to steer the public in the right direction.

“I don’t think body-shaming helps,” Logemann stressed, but “I also don’t think saying being 100 pounds overweight is healthy, because it’s not” the Wisconsin physician added in reference to the February cover of Cosmopolitan.

Moritsugu emphasized mental health must be seen as important in the long-term campaign to combat obesity.

“Health is not nearly physical. It is a three-legged stood of physical, mental, and spiritual health,” Moritsugu said.

All three pillars have taken a beating under pandemic lockdowns. Churches across the country were shut down, Americans stuck at home gained weight, and the pre-existing mental health crisis grew rapidly worse. 

[Read more on the importance of spiritual health here].

One of the most visible epidemics that must be addressed in the wake of coronavirus, however, remains obesity. Tackling it would provide reinforcement to all three crumbling pillars.