COVID-19: Will obesity sabotage our recovery?

This may be one of the trickiest Reality Health Check e-letters I have ever written…

Not because the topic is new to me—I write about the risks of obesity all the time. (That’s just one reason why I talked about the extra complications it could introduce to the coronavirus pandemic months ago.)

In fact, I shared research showing that obesity is the second biggest risk factor next to age when it comes to severe COVID-19 illness, and ultimately, death. But, as you might expect, new information about this novel virus continues to come out.

And while I don’t want to spread panic, given the sheer number of obese people in America, everyone should know the facts. Including the very real possibility that obesity could undermine the effectiveness of an eventual COVID-19 vaccine. Let’s take a look…

Chronic inflammation kills

For better or for worse, many people are hedging their bets on a vaccine to put an end to this pandemic. That’s why I want to talk a little bit about how obesity intersects with this vaccine—or any vaccine, for that matter.

You may not be aware of this, but obesity actually reduces the effectiveness of a lot of vaccines—including the hepatitis B, tetanus, rabies, and flu shots.

It’s really not surprising when you consider the basics of a hardy immune system. Under healthy conditions, your body turns inflammation on and off as you need it, deploying white blood cells and proteins to fight off infection. Vaccines rely on this normal inflammatory response to provide your body with protection.

And that, folks, is precisely the problem. Because it just so happens that obese people—especially when they struggle with the usual constellation of metabolic risk factors, including high blood pressure and high blood sugar—live in a state of chronic inflammation.

As I’ve mentioned before, fat—especially lethal visceral fat, which accumulates around the midsection—is metabolically active and pro-inflammatory. This leaves obese adults uniquely vulnerable to illness… not just from cancer and heart disease, but from the flu and any other virus, too.

But it gets worse. Back in 2017, a group of scientists at UNC Chapel Hill reported that obese adults who had received the flu vaccine were also twice as likely as healthy-weight adults to come down with influenza or a similar illness.

And unfortunately, there’s no reason to think that our luck will be any better against COVID-19.

Get healthy before disaster strikes

You can dismiss this as baseless speculation if you want. But the first study linking obesity to COVID-19 death came out of China all the way back in March. And, of course, I was immediately concerned for our population, as we are among the heaviest in the world.

And guess what? Turns out, I was right to be concerned.

In fact, when New York City and the surrounding area emerged as the epicenter of the American outbreak, we thought that only morbid obesity would pose a major problem. (That’s a body mass index [BMI] over 40, or roughly 100 pounds overweight—which sadly applies to nearly ten percent of the U.S. population.)

But we have since learned that anyone with a BMI over 30 is at an increased risk of severe infections. And that applies to a whopping 43 percent of the U.S. population!

To make matters worse, there are a number of experts out there who predict that any forthcoming COVID-19 vaccine simply won’t work for the more than 100 million Americans who happen to be obese—likely due to their lack of a healthy inflammatory response.

Now, you know I don’t believe that a vaccine will ever be our golden ticket out of this mess. (And I’m not alone—the latest poll showed that only around 40 percent of people would opt to get one anyway.)

But the real takeaway here is that, any way you slice it, obesity represents a very real roadblock on our country’s path to pandemic recovery.

So, I’ll say it again: Your best defense against any health issue—whether we’re talking about cancer or coronavirus—is to get as healthy as you can before it strikes. And as always, that starts with eating right and maintaining a healthy weight.

Luckily, I have a few books that can help you with exactly that—including my latest, The A-List Diet. So if you haven’t picked up a copy yet, don’t wait another minute. Order yours today. And while you’re at it, become a subscriber to my Logical Health Alternatives monthly newsletter, where you’ll stay current on all of my science-backed recommendations for leading a healthier life.


“America’s obesity epidemic threatens effectiveness of any COVID vaccine.” Kaiser Health News, 08/06/2020. (