When Two Health Risks Merge – Rising Obesity Rates Put More Americans at Risk for Serious Health Impacts of the Novel Coronavirus


High obesity rates in communities of color may be one of a number of factors leading to severe COVID-19 impacts in those communities

(Washington, DC – May 6, 2020) – New data drawn from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) found that 42.4 percent of U.S. adults age 20 and older have obesity. That rate was up nearly three percentage points from the previous NHANES survey taken in 2015-2016 when 39.6 percent of the nation’s adults had obesity. After remaining relatively stable in the 2000s, these new data represent the third consecutive NHANES survey that found increases in the nation’s adult obesity rate of 2.8, 1.9 and 2.8 percentage points respectively.

The latest survey also showed a continuing pattern of higher rates of obesity in Black and Latino communities than in the White population. Among adults, the prevalence of both obesity and severe obesity was highest in Black adults compared with other races/ethnicities.

Rates of Obesity – U.S. Adults by Race:

  • Blacks – 49.6%
  • Latinos – 44.8%
  • Whites – 42.2%

Rates of Obesity – U.S. Adults by Race and Gender

  • Black Women – 56.9%
  • Black Men – 41.1%
  • Latina Women – 43.7%
  • Latino Men – 45.7%
  • White Women – 39.8 %
  • White Men – 44.7 %

Childhood obesity is also increasing across the country. Having obesity as a child puts you at a higher risk of having obesity as an adult.

Having obesity puts people at higher risk for severe COVID-19 impact
It is well-established that obesity is associated with serious health risks.  The risk of diabetes is closely associated with obesity. In addition, people with obesity have higher levels of pre-existing respiratory and cardiac disease which puts them at higher risk for serious impacts if infected by the novel coronavirus.  In a study in review for publication, researchers at New York University found that obesity is one of three of the most common risk factors for COVID-19 hospitalizations.

The COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately causing severe illness and taking the lives of Black Americans. As of April, of COVID-19 positive tests where the patient’s race/ethnicity was known, 28.5 percent were Black. Blacks make-up 13.4 percent of the U.S. population.  Additional examples include Milwaukee County, Wisconsin, Blacks are 28 percent of the county’s population but as of early April were 73 percent of its coronavirus deaths. In Michigan, Blacks are 14 percent of the state’s population and 41 percent of the state’s coronavirus deaths. In Chicago, Blacks are 23 percent of the city’s residents and 58 percent of its coronavirus deaths.

The social, economic, and environmental conditions that lead to higher rates of obesity and other chronic diseases in communities of color are tied to factors that also elevate the risk of COVID-19 related hospitalizations and death.  Factors such as lack of economic opportunities, for example in the form of good jobs with living wages, contribute to obesity by making it more difficult to afford healthier foods or have access to stores that sell affordable healthy produce.  Additional conditions in many communities of color that contribute COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths are living in multigenerational households, working in public-facing jobs that elevate COVID-19 risk (such as work in home health care, grocery stores, delivery services and the public transit system) and less access to healthcare.

“Numerous factors are leading to the tragic overrepresentation of people of color in the nation’s COVID-19 deaths, among them the number of people of color working on the frontlines as essential workers, where telework or physical distancing is not possible,” said Dr. J. Nadine Gracia, Trust for America’s Health’s Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. “In addition, high levels of chronic disease within communities of color, such as diabetes and heart disease, are contributing to higher levels of COVID-19 deaths”.

The nation’s obesity crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to interact in additional ways. For example, food insecurity is associated with obesity. An additional contributing factor is lack of physical activity. Unfortunately, COVID-19 will increase both of those concerns as millions of families are currently food insecure due to job loss and many places to exercise such as gyms, community centers and parks are closed.

“The COVID-19 crisis has illuminated systemic and structural inequities that impact the health and well-being of people of color,” Dr. Gracia said. “The factors associated with maintaining a healthy weight are another example of the ways in which where people live, the neighborhood resources available, and the economic opportunities afforded to them drive their health, and are now driving their degree of health risk due to COVID-19.”

While federal and state leaders are immediately focused on protecting lives during the current crisis, investing in programs to stem the rise in the country’s obesity rates will not only improve Americans’ health, it will also make the country more resilient during future health emergencies.

Some of the federal policy actions TFAH recommends to reverse the country’s rising obesity rates are:

  • Congress should fully fund CDC’s Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity’s SPAN (State Physical Activity and Nutrition program) grants for all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Current CDC funding only supports 16 states out of 50 approved applications.
  • Congress should increase funding for CDC’s Racial and Ethnic Approaches to Community Health (REACH) program which works with community organizations to deliver effective local and culturally appropriate obesity prevention programs in communities that bear a disproportionate burden of chronic disease. Current funding only supports 31 grantees out of 261 approved applications.
  • Build capacity for CDC and public health departments to work with other sectors (such as housing and transportation) to address social determinants of health, the nonmedical factors that affect communities’ health status including rates of obesity.
  • Without decreasing access or benefit levels, ensure that anti-hunger and nutrition-assistance programs, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) follow the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and make access to nutritious food a core program tenet.
  • Expand the WIC program to age 6 for children and for two years postpartum for mothers. Fully fund the WIC Breastfeeding Peer Counseling Program.
  • Increase the price of sugary drinks through excise taxes and use the revenue to address health and socioeconomic disparities. Increasing the price of surgery drinks has been shown to decrease their consumption.
  • Enforce existing laws that direct most health insurers to cover obesity-related preventive services at no-cost sharing to patients. Comprehensive pediatric weight management programs and services should also be covered by Medicaid.
  • Encourage safe physical activity by funding Complete Streets, Vision Zero and other pedestrian safety initiatives through federal transportation and infrastructure funding.
  • In schools, strengthen and expand school nutrition programs beyond federal standards to include universal meals and flexible breakfasts, eliminate all unhealthy food marketing to students, support physical education programs in all schools and expand programs that ensure students can safely walk or ride bicycles to and from school.

See TFAH’s State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America 2019 for additional recommendations on how to stem the country’s obesity crisis. https://www.tfah.org/report-details/stateofobesity20