Obesity, COVID-19 and improving clinical outcomes


The link between obesity and adverse outcomes from COVID-19 has been widely reported. But just how significant is this link and what does it mean for patients and clinicians? Dr Simon Williams, Programme Lead for the MSc and Postgraduate Diploma in Obesity and Weight Management programmes, gives us his thoughts.

The statistics

An analysis of 20 studies from different countries found that all but 2 studies showed individuals with obesity are more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than individuals without obesity. Overall, the likelihood of a positive COVID-19 test was 46% higher in people living with obesity.

A further analysis of 19 studies from different countries showed that obesity increases the likelihood of patients with COVID-19 requiring hospitalisation. All 19 studies reported that obesity increases the chance of hospitalisation and, overall, this increased likelihood of hospitalisation was 113% greater in people living with obesity. The risk of requiring treatment in an intensive care unit was 74% higher in people living with obesity.

Finally, evidence from 35 studies showed that COVID-19 patients with obesity were more likely to have unfavourable outcomes with a 48% increase in deaths.

*Source: Individuals with obesity and COVID-19: A global perspective on the epidemiology and biological relationships, Popkin et al. November 2020.

Further Complications

People with obesity frequently have a number of underlying health conditions, including hypertension, type 2 diabetes and chronic kidney and liver disease, all of which contribute to the heightened risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19.

Research has revealed that almost one in three people who died in English hospitals from COVID-19 also suffered from diabetes.

As well as the presence of underlying health conditions, the adverse COVID-19 outcomes seen in people with obesity may be explained by the metabolic and pulmonary dysfunction, immune system impairments and adipose tissue inflammation that are all features of obesity.

Obesity may also reduce the effectiveness of medical therapies for COVID-19 and a large body size impairs the ability of therapists to manually adjust patients for ventilation of the lungs.

The ‘Lockdown’ Effect

Prolonged social interventions such as physical distancing and self-isolation have the potential to exacerbate the obesity epidemic and its aforementioned associated health conditions and complications.

People living with obesity are especially vulnerable to psychological distress, eating disorders, and emotional eating. This latter behaviour is defined as a compelling need to eat food, usually something rich in sugars and fats (unhealthy), to quell an emotion, such as anger, fear, stress, or worry. For these reasons, people who are already obese may be the most likely to gain weight during times of lockdown.

A survey carried out by Ipsos Mori on behalf of Kings College London found that 35% of adults admitted to eating more food, or less healthy food, than they normally would, and 19% are drinking more alcohol than they normally would. This widespread weight gain has even garnered its own social media hashtag: #Quarantine15.

The rate of obesity in both adults and children was already at an all-time high before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While only time will tell how significantly a year of little exercise, high psychological stress and social isolation will impact obesity rates in the long term, it is clear that clinicians need to act now to increase their knowledge in this area of medicine.

Why Study in Obesity and Weight Management now?

There is insufficient data on how to treat patients with obesity who contract COVID-19. While published evidence supports certain treatment methods, little is known on how other medicine dosages should be adjusted for more effective treatment. Moreover, weight-related conditions like diabetes and heart disease make COVID-19 even more challenging to treat.

As the body of scientific knowledge around COVID-19 is constantly evolving, the connection between obesity and how it affects the symptoms of COVID-19 is also continually developing. Healthcare professionals must be aware of the latest trends and developments of obesity and COVID-19 in order to effectively treat patients.

About Postgraduate Diploma and MSc in Obesity and Weight Management

The Obesity and Weight Management Postgraduate Diploma or MSc will equip you with a comprehensive understanding of the care of patients and their weight management. Utilising these concepts in clinical practice will enhance your confidence, knowledge and the clinical outcomes for your patients.

Professional development in this area will be a vital resource in the global battle against both the obesity crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic as there is an urgent need for clinicians with this specialist knowledge. There are still a small number of places available for our March 2021 intake so apply now to secure yours.

Learn more about our online courses for healthcare professionals.