There’s finally a glimmer of light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, but the pandemic is casting the spotlight on another health epidemic: Obesity.

“The problems that COVID-19 causes in your body are intensified by obesity,” said Dr. Benjamin Clapp, a bariatric surgeon at The Hospital of Providence’s A New Me Bariatric Center.

Recent studies

Dr. Clapp points to a recent analysis published in the medical journal Metabolism which concluded that people who suffer from obesity – those with a Body Mass Index greater than 30kg/m2 – have a significantly increased risk of hospitalization and death due to COVID-19.

The analysis showed that patients with a BMI of 30 or more had a 2.35 times greater risk of severe or critical COVID-19 symptoms and a 2.68 times greater risk of dying after contracting COVID-19 in comparison to patients with a BMI under 30. Those numbers are even worse for obese patients over the age of 60.

It also showed that the risk of critical COVID-19 symptoms and death increases dramatically as BMI goes up.

Obesity increases the risk of severe illness, health problems and complications due to heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers.

About 70% of Americans are either overweight or obese, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows.

Obesity in El Paso

While El Paso often ranks high in national lists for “most obese cities,” the rate of obesity in the Far West Texas region that includes El Paso is about 45%, data from Texas Health and Human Services shows.

That’s lower than others in the state, including the region encompassing Midland/Odessa (41.1%) and the Far East Texas region that includes Houston (48.5%).

Because El Paso’s largely minority population is at increased risk for diabetes and other chronic illness, however, obesity can complicate health matters such as COVID-19 along the border.

There is no one factor that pre-determines whether someone will be obese, Dr. Clapp said. But, in general, poorer populations are the most at risk.

“Every now and then you hear about the ‘fat gene,’ but it’s more complex than that,” he said.

And while Black and Hispanic women are at the  greatest risk of becoming obese, in general, obesity is an American problem.

 “Just look at the portion sizes we eat here in America versus the rest of the world,” Dr. Clapp said. “We also lead a more sedentary lifestyle.”

Finding solutions

Recently, a team of researchers which included UTEP associate professor of psychology Sergio Iñiguez made discoveries about a specific area of the brain tied to recollection and the desire to seek and consume food – which could lead to a way to inhibit the desire to overeat.

Iñiguez said that people tend to overeat when exposed to cues that remind them of treats, which is one reason why people opt for dessert even after a filling meal.

The study showed that neurons in a specific part of the brain control the link between the cue (seeing the dessert) and the action (ordering the dessert). The team found that animal subjects consumed fewer treats when they regulated that region of its brain.

“This is a big discovery because we now have experimental tools that allow us to turn off neurons while the subjects engage in a specific behavior,” Iñiguez said.

However, these are very new findings and it could be years before they are used to help solve the obesity problem.

Healthy habits

“Weight-gain doesn’t happen overnight,” Dr. Clapp said. “It happens over a lifespan. Most people will inadvertently creep up about six pounds per year, and so over say 10 years that’s 60 pounds. Now, your body thinks you’re supposed to weigh 230 pounds, so if you lose 20 to 30 pounds, now your body’s hormones will start to overrule you. That’s why most diets fail, because your body starts to kick in.”

Clapp says teaching children about nutrition and healthy eating habits is the solution to curing the country’s obesity problem.

Giving children unrestricted access to sweets and sodas is setting them down a path towards future health problems. Parents and adults looking to maintain or lose weight should start by eliminating sweets and processed foods from their grocery list altogether.

“If you bring it into the house,” Dr. Clapp said, “it’s going to get eaten.”


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