Obesity Makes COVID-19 Harder to Fight

May 29 2020

With so much misinformation surrounding obesity, Catherine Varney, DO, is careful with her words. First of all, she clarifies that her patients are not obese but rather have obesity, which is a disease and not a lack of willpower. What is clear: Obesity makes people sick and makes it harder to fight COVID-19.

“Obesity is the underlying cause of all these chronic diseases that we’re seeing in primary care—diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. There’s nothing obesity doesn’t touch—even depression, anxiety, sleep apnea, PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome), fertility and osteoarthritis. If we can get obesity under control, we can get all these other things under control,” said Varney, a UVA Health family medicine physician who is also board certified in obesity medicine.  

Obesity is second only to older age as the main driver for people needing hospital care due to COVID-19, partly explaining why younger people experienced severe disease, preliminary studies are showing. While fighting the coronavirus, some of Varney’s patients had to be placed face down on a ventilator to relieve pressure from the extra weight on their chest that would make breathing even more difficult. “COVID-19 showed us how this is not about vanity but how well we can fight disease,” she said. As an expert who stays current on obesity science, Varney shares the facts – and hope – for anyone struggling with obesity, which doesn’t have to be someone’s life-long destiny.

Fact 1: There are no quick fixes but obesity can be controlled.“Saying to someone ‘eat less and exercise more’ doesn’t work,” Varney said. She explains: “When we’re actively losing weight, our body thinks we’re dying so will fight tooth and nail against our best efforts. The closer someone gets to their weight-loss goal, the harder it becomes. This is why a lot of people give up. Your body doesn’t like change so you rarely hear patients say, ‘I was overweight once.’ It’s always, ‘I’ve struggled with this my whole life.’ What they don’t realize is that they’re fighting against a brain that has evolved to want them to eat whenever it passes by something high calorie or dense with nutrition because we don’t know when it’s going to come again. It is the caveman mentality, and we’re surrounded everywhere by high-calorie foods but never times of famine.”

Fact 2: Exercise isn’t the answer. It only helps 3 to 5 percent with losing weight but is important with maintaining weight once the pounds are shed, Varney said. Exercise can even be dangerous so not always initially part of her prescribed treatment plan. “For some patients, I don’t prescribe exercise until they lose a certain amount of weight,” Varney said.

Fact 3: The best diet depends on the individual. “What works for one person might not work for another due to a complicated system of genetics, metabolism, environment and other conditions a patient may have,” Varney said. “Still, studies show that low carb for the first six months is the best diet for weight loss. But for weight maintenance, there’s not much difference between low fat and low carb.” 

Fact 4: Medications are effective. Several drugs are FDA approved for weight loss. Introduced in 1959, “phentermine is one of the most effective drugs,” Varney said. “It suppresses the appetite while patients are making lifestyle changes and the body is getting used to how much food is acceptable. It brings a little increase in metabolic rate, and importantly, quiets the brain. If you’re inside the head of someone with obesity, you wouldn’t believe how much they are constantly being yelled at to ‘eat, eat, eat!’” 

Phentermine is FDA approved only for short-term use (up to 3 months) but a recent study showed that those who took it every day for 2 years saw no increase in cardiovascular risk. “Under close watch, we can keep patients on these short-term drugs for longer. There can be complications but very rare,” Varney said. Phentermine, she adds, is not dangerous like fenfluramine, which was pulled off the market years ago after it was found to damage the heart valve. Another drug, diethylpropion, is “closely related to amphetamines, but it is not ‘speed’ and not addictive,” Varney said. “I had a patient whose provider told them, ‘That stuff is no better than what you can get on the street.’ There is definitely a bias against weight-loss medication that’s been around since the 1960s.” A recent drug to be FDA approved for weight loss is Saxenda. Introduced as a diabetic drug, it was later found to quiet the link between the stomach and brain, Varney noted.

Fact 5: Losing a little brings big health gains. “I’ve had one patient lose 100 pounds. I have another patient where she’s just been gaining and gaining over the last 10 years and finally we put the finger in the dam and she lost about 3 percent of her body weight,” Varney said. “This doesn’t sound like a lot but she’s not gaining anymore and that’s huge. Genetically, it might be very hard for someone to reach an ideal weight but the real goal is just improvement of health. Studies show that just a 10% reduction of body weight is huge in regards to decreased risk of heart attack or stroke. You get the best benefit from weight loss at the first 10% so losing 18 pounds if you’re 180 is a big step.”

Fact 6: Bariatric surgery is effective. But some of these patients need medication or other prescribed measures to take and keep the weight off, Varney said. When someone loses an extreme amount of weight in a short time (think Biggest Loser), they will develop a slow metabolism that persists for years. One Biggest Loser participant, for example, was found to burn 800 fewer calories a day than would be expected for a man his size. His slow metabolism persisted six years after participating in the show.

Fact 7: Our understanding of obesity is advancing quickly.“Maintaining board certification in obesity science requires continuing education on a yearly basis. This is because obesity science is changing rapidly,” Varney said. “The diet and medication regimens that I was prescribing 5 years ago are completely different from what I’m prescribing now. For a long time, it was low fat, low fat, low fat and now we have 73 good peer-reviewed studies that show low-carb diet is best for weight loss.”


Eric Swensen
Public Information Officer
Phone: 434.924.5770