Blog | Friday, June 19, 2020

If ever there was a time to address the obesity epidemic, COVID-19 must surely be it


Physicians and scientists have known since the very beginning of this awful pandemic, that coronavirus is not an indiscriminate killer. By far the two biggest risk factors for getting very sick from the virus are older age and having chronic illnesses or immunosuppression. These are the groups who must be protected above all others. Of course, there are also very sad stories of young healthy people who have been badly affected, and although these cases tend to get a lot of media attention—they are outliers when one looks at the overall statistics.

Intrinsically tied to chronic illnesses such as diabetes and heart disease, is probably the third biggest risk factor: Being overweight or obese. This has been observed across the frontlines in many countries, and it's very disappointing that there has barely been any talk about this. It may be an uncomfortable truth for the population as a whole, especially as statistics show that almost 70% of the American population is now overweight or obese, defined as having a body mass index over 25. These numbers have soared over the last few decades (by comparison in 1990, obese adults made up less than 15% of the population in most U.S. states. In 2010, 36 states had obesity rates of 25% or higher). This hasn't happened by chance or because our metabolism has suddenly changed. It's because we have a diet full of excess calories, junk food and live sedentary lifestyles! All doctors already know what obesity does to the human body and your internal organs, including your heart and lungs. If you want any visual evidence, feel free to go online and look at what an internal abdominal CT scan looks like in an obese versus a non-obese person, and how much fatty tissue accumulates around the organs.

Rates of obesity across the western world have skyrocketed for the same reasons as they have in the United States. Even in China, obesity rates have shockingly tripled in the last 10 years. In the country I grew up, the United Kingdom, coronavirus was so widespread that it reached the top levels of government and monarchy. Many government ministers contracted COVID-19, and Prince Charles—our future King—was also sick with it. All but one recovered at home, and unfortunately our Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, ended up having a brush with death on the ICU. Thankfully he's better now, but British doctors widely acknowledged that it was Mr. Johnson's obesity (he's otherwise healthy) that placed an additional strain on his lungs and led to him becoming so sick.

This shouldn't really be an uncomfortable truth. It is not fat shaming or trying to embarrass people. Being overweight or obese places an unnatural stress on your body and very likely suppresses your immunity. One of my favorite comedians, Bill Maher, said it well recently: “This is a health problem, and Governors should declare keeping your body in good health an essential job”. We are approaching this from the wrong end, and focusing on keeping our immune systems as healthy as possible, must be a priority. Yet nobody is talking about this seriously. It's not going to be a magical cure or a societal achievement that's easily attained: but we are doing ourselves a great disservice by ignoring it. And if doctors are not the relentlessly reinforcing this, nobody will.

The search for a vaccine or treatment may or may not be successful. Let's be honest. Viruses like coronavirus, once they are out there on the loose, rarely get eradicated. Immunizations and pills will only go so far. We have a vaccine for the flu, but millions of people still get it and hundreds of thousands die. That's because vaccines are rarely completely effective and viruses keep mutating. It's unlikely going to be a simple jab or a pill you can pop in your mouth that cures this problem. And shutting down the country and social distancing, can only last for so long.

So if you really want to know something that the majority of the population can work on, instead of spending hours of time sitting at home and watching the news: Eat more vegetables and fruits, take in more vitamin C and anti-oxidants, cut back on saturated fats, red meats, processed foods, and sugars. Get out and exercise. And yes: Get to a healthy weight.

Because if we can focus on the obesity epidemic in this country, that may be the single biggest long-term thing we have control over, that will send coronavirus—and a lot of other illnesses too—packing.

Suneel Dhand is an internal medicine physician, author and speaker. He is the founder of DocSpeak Communications and co-founder at DocsDox. He blogs at his self-titled site, where this post first appeared.