Obesity and poor immune response

Long before the coronavirus showed up, another lethal epidemic was spreading across our country and world.

Obesity claims the lives of nearly 3 million people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organization.

Obesity means having an excess amount of body fat (as opposed to being overweight, which means you have an excess amount of body weight that may come from muscles, bone, fat and water).

Research is indicating that being obese makes it far more likely that you won’t survive a COVID-19 infection and that if you do, it will be severe enough to require a ventilator.

What’s more, being obese means that a COVID-19 vaccine may not protect you at all…

Obesity causes chronic inflammation and poor immune response

Immunometabolism is an emerging field of study that looks at connections between our immune system and our body’s metabolic processes.

Research in this field is showing that obesity reduces our body’s ability to mount an immune response against invaders like viruses.

For starters, adipose tissue, better known as fat, contains chemicals that trigger inflammation. Interleukin 6 is involved in the inflammation behind coronary heart disease.

And chronic inflammation appears to interfere with the immune response needed for a vaccine to work.

Evidence of this goes back as far as 1985. Researchers have found that vaccines for flu, hepatitis, tetanus and rabies offered less protection to people who were obese.

The question is, will the same prove true for a COVID-19 vaccine?

Obesity means less protection

As we get older, our bodies become more susceptible to infectious diseases, something immunologists call immunosenescence, or the aging of our immune system.

That’s why adults over the age of 65 receive a “super-charged” flu vaccine. It contains more flu virus antigens, to help “jump-start” the immune response.

So, if you are over 65 and obese, you stand a double risk of not benefiting from a vaccine.

Dr. Raz Shaikh of the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill predicts that any vaccine that is developed for COVID-19 and not tailored to the immune needs of the obese will not protect them from the disease.

The young and obese are at risk, too

If you’re younger and obese, that doesn’t guarantee that a vaccine will work for you, either.

Dr. Michaela Anderson is a pulmonologist at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.

She and her colleagues reviewed medical records for nearly 2,500 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 in March and April.

“Increasing obesity was associated with an increased risk of lung failure or death in COVID-19,” said Dr. Anderson.

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Anderson and her team found that morbidly obese COVID-19 patients (those with a body mass index over 40) are 60 percent more likely to die or require intubation, compared with people of normal weight.

Patients who were mildly obese were 10 percent more likely to die or need a breathing machine, while those who were moderately obese were 30 percent more likely, according to the study.

But oddly, these numbers only seemed to apply to people under 65.

While people over 65 tend to develop respiratory failure due to age and health problems unrelated to weight (high blood pressure, diabetes, etc.), it’s worth noting that young and middle-aged people who are obese are at just as much risk.

Take extra precautions if you’re overweight

Based on this evidence, Dr. Anderson cautions people who are obese to be extra vigilant about minimizing their risk of exposure to the coronavirus.

“People who are obese and young may want to consider prolonged social distancing and minimizing risks for a little longer than people who are not obese,” she says.

It’s also means doing everything in your power to work on bringing your weight down.

Alexis Elliott, LCSW, LISW-CP, CDE, a health coach with specialties in diabetes, obesity, eating disorders and nutrition suggests starting with three small changes that include quitting soda (just one has 39 grams of sugar!), walking 20 minutes a day and giving up popular morning “foods” like muffins, doughnuts or sugary Starbucks coffee.

“The key to long-term weight-loss success is in continued small progress, the little daily victories that add up to bigger victory over time,” says Elliott. “Even if you don’t see progress on the scale, you can’t let it trip you up from moving forward.”

What will that look like? Though you could see rapid weight loss at first, expect it to slow down, but don’t give up. Long-term weight loss typically looks like this:

  • 3 pounds per week during the first two months
  • 3 pounds every two weeks during the third month
  • 1 pound every other week after the first 12 weeks


  1. US obesity epidemic could undermine effectiveness of a Covid-19 vaccine — CNN Health
  2. Obesity Ups Odds for Severe COVID-19, But Age Matters — Web MD
  3. Increased risk of influenza among vaccinated adults who are obese — International Journal of Obesity
  4. Body Mass Index and Risk for Intubation or Death in SARS-CoV-2 Infection — Annals of Internal Medicine
  5. World Health Organization: 10 Facts on Obesity — World Health Organization
  6. Why vaccines are less effective in the elderly, and what it means for COVID-19  — Medical Express
  7. Losing Weight When You’re Over 250 lbs or Your BMI is Over 30 — Type 2 Nation
Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.