COVID is Really an Obesity Epidemic

Commentary, COVID-19, Culture Wars, Brian Giesbrecht

A 1973 ParticipACTION ad informed Canadians that the average 30-year-old Canadian was as fit as the average 60-year-old Swede. It urged us to get into shape. It didn’t work. We are heavier and in worse shape now. And, unfortunately, this coronavirus targets the obese.

It has been known since this pandemic began that there was a link between obesity and death from this virus. However, new studies show how strong that connection is. While we always knew that the elderly with comorbidities are at much greater risk of hospitalization and death, we now understand that one of their lethal comorbidities is almost always obesity.

Most people of all ages who died from COVID-19 were overweight. These studies show that nations that do not have our obesity problem have as little as 1/10th the death rate. In essence, thin countries had no pandemic—only a normal flu year. Ours was really an obesity epidemic.

This is not meant to “fat shame” anyone, but the science is clear that the coronavirus definitely considers obesity a comorbidity. Canada is not the worst, but on all scales we are on the “fat” list, while low COVID-19 death-rate nations, like Japan and Vietnam, are on the “thin” list.

Canada also has pockets within our population where the obesity problem is particularly acute. Indigenous communities are one example. Special protocols that prioritize Indigenous people for vaccination recognize the severity of the problem there.

It’s harder for some than others to keep the weight off. A Western lifestyle that encourages fast, unhealthy meals and too much screen time makes it tough. The pandemic has made it worse. More sitting, eating and drinking, combined with the disastrous “health” advice to stay indoors, was a recipe for poor health.

But other nations stay thin. They face the same pressures that we do. Scandinavians maintain healthier body weights than we do. But like us, they are wealthy. What about a poor country like Vietnam? They are poorer, yet healthier. Why can’t Canadians remedy this major health problem, as we largely did with smoking?

Imagine the benefit to our economy and well-being if Canadians could move to the “fit” from the “fat” list. The enormous and growing health spending—now crippling our economy—could be brought under control. And more importantly, lives would improve.

But instead of doing what “thin” nations do, we pin our hopes on drugs to save us. Dubious weight-loss drugs and therapies are billion-dollar industries here. We want to have our cake—(and pizza and burgers)—and eat it too.

So, while it looks like drugs are indeed coming to our rescue on the COVID-19 front—the vaccines and new therapeutics look great (at least for this particular mutation of this particular virus)—they won’t do anything about our national weight problem. The best “vaccine” has always been maintaining a healthy body weight, by eating properly and exercising.

The old ParticipACTION ads were largely unsuccessful, at least in part because Canadians resented being called fat. Politeness is good, but it makes no sense to ignore a problem that will be killing us long after this pandemic is history.

An honest discussion about our obesity epidemic is not “fat-shaming” and is long overdue.


Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.

Photo by AllGo – An App For Plus Size People on Unsplash.