Pandemic Meets Epidemic: Obesity and COVID-19

May 21, 2021 by Alexa Hornbeck

Marna Gatlin, a 58-year-old from Portland, Ore., is the administrator of a Facebook support group for morbidly obese individuals. Gatlin has struggled with obesity for several years but found this past year to be more challenging. 

“I decided during the pandemic I would not get on the scale because I didn’t want to depress myself, but could feel my clothes get tighter,” said Gatlin. “This whole lockdown has caused a lot of mental health issues and people are gaining weight.”  

A recent study by researchers at University of San Francisco examined changes in body weight during the pandemic-related shelter-in-place orders in 37 states and Washington, D.C. from February 1 to June 1, 2020.  

Out of 269 study participants who volunteered to report weight measurements from their Bluetooth-connected smart scale via Fitbit or ihealth devices, researchers found a steady weight gain at a rate of about 1.5 lbs. every month following lockdown orders.  

Another report from the American Psychological Association conducted this year in February titled, “Stress in America,” finds that 42% of U.S. adults have gained weight, 29 pounds, on average since the start of the pandemic. 

“The data on weight gain and loss, together with changes in sleeping habits, and alcohol consumption signals that many adults may be having difficulties managing stressors, including grief and trauma,” said Dr. Vaile Wright, American Psychological Association senior director for health care innovation. 

“I suffer from depression and know that ties into the issue, it’s an addiction factor,” said Gatlin. 

Gatlin experienced sleep issues throughout the pandemic, which often led to late night eating, and she was unable to remain physically active as she could no longer participate in activities like swimming or walking with her support group.  

“Eating healthy and organically is also expensive, especially with the pandemic, and often people from a low socioeconomic status will eat ramen full of salt, or cheese and bread, anything easy to fix, which is often laden with fat and calories and high in carbs,” said Gatlin. 

In the APA study population, 61% of adults reported experiencing undesired weight changes since the start of the pandemic, with more than 42% saying they gained more weight than they intended.  

“The median weight gain of 15 pounds, which is a remarkable figure, particularly if you take into account the typical tendency to underreport weight and weight gain,” said Wright.  

Significant weight gain poses long-term health risks, and according to the National Institutes of Health, people who are obese and gain more than 11 pounds are at higher risk of developing Type II diabetes mellitus and coronary heart disease, and people who gain more than 24 pounds are at higher risk of developing ischemic stroke. 

“People who are overweight or obese are more likely to develop serious illness from the coronavirus,” said Wright.   

“If I got this, I would be dead. I have diabetes, and asthma conditions because of medication I take, and my rheumatologist and infectious disease specialists said they are glad I got the vaccine, because if I got COVID-19 I would be on a ventilator or worse,” said Gatlin. 

“There have been people in our group that have contracted COVID, and it was scary for them, their whole families got it, and you wonder if this is your time,” Gatlin continued.  

An estimated 300,000 deaths per year are due to the obesity epidemic, and president of the World Obesity Federation, Donna Ryan, said obesity is not only a driver of risk for type 2 diabetes, it is also a driver of cardiovascular disease, 13 kinds of cancer, and more than 200 diseases.   

“The COVID-19 epidemic exposed the impact that obesity has on health. It is not a cosmetic problem. It’s a health problem.  It’s not the result of bad choices. It’s the result of genetic susceptibility and many other complex factors,” said Ryan. 

“It’s not black and white, morbid obesity is complicated and expensive, it’s not just a head game,” said Gatlin.  

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