CLEVELAND — A study published this week by the Cleveland Clinic shows that obesity can be a modifiable risk factor for COVID-19.

The research shows that substantial weight loss can drastically reduce the likelihood for severe complications.

What You Need To Know

  • A study by the Cleveland Clinic shows obesity can be a risk factor for COVID-19

  • Elizabeth Zehe said she’s struggled with her weight all her life

  • In 2011, Zehe underwent gastric bypass surgery

  • She credits her weight loss for her milder symptoms when she and her family contracted COVID-19

Elizabeth Zehe said she’s struggled with her weight all her life.

“I can remember family members saying things to me from the time I was 12 or 13," she said.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Zehe

Over the years, she tried just about everything to shed the extra pounds.

“Carb counting, I tried high protein, the protein sparing. I tried, you know, Nutrisystem. I tried everything. I tried doctor controlled and it just did not work for me," said Zehe.

Her grandson, Jackson, inspired her to make major change.

“When I could not get down on the floor and play with him and get back up comfortably, I said, ‘You know what, I want to be here to see him get married, to see him go to college’ and I felt that if I didn’t do something drastic that I would not have been able to see those joyous moments in his life," she said.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Zehe

In 2011, Zehe underwent gastric bypass surgery.

“I had more health problems than I do now,” she said. “I had high blood pressure. I had high cholesterol. I’m a diabetic and my insulin requirements were about 130 units a day.” 

She went from weighing 245 pounds to 160, and she’s been able to maintain that healthier weight ever since. 

“I still go for the XL clothes in the aisle,” said Zehe. “You know, when I’m shopping with my daughter and she’ll turn around and look at me and go, 'Mom you’re not there anymore,' and I’m finally to the point where I can say OK here is my size and I’m OK with that.”

The week of Thanksgiving in 2020, she caught COVID-19. 

“It kind of hit me like a ton on bricks," she said. "But, like, my husband of course got it, but he ended up in the ICU. My daughter got it extremely bad. I just was exhausted for two weeks.”

She credits her weight loss to her mild symptoms and speedy recovery.

“Do I believe that if I had gotten it prior to weight loss I would have had such a good outcome? I don’t think so,” she said. “I don’t think so because at the size I was I already had trouble walking and breathing. Putting COVID on top of that I think would have been much worse. Much worse.”

The new Cleveland Clinic study backs up her belief. 

“The magnitude of the effect was surprising," said Dr. Ali Aminian, Director of Bariatric and Metabolic Institute at the Cleveland Clinic.

He said research compiled from March 2020 to March 2021 shows that bariatric surgery patients have a 60% lower risk of developing severe complications from COVID-19.

“That’s very encouraging and hopefully that’s going to help patients, going to help healthcare providers and policymakers to take the obesity seriously," said Dr. Aminian.

Dr. Aminian said since the start of the pandemic, it’s been clear that obesity is a major risk factor for COVID-19.

Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Zehe

“The unanswered question was about the impact of weight loss. If we help patients to lose weight, can we reverse these health consequences of obesity in the context of COVID-19?" said Dr. Aminian.

The short answer is yes.

The study looked at different COVID-19-related outcomes in about 20,000 people with obesity. 

About 5,000 patients who had bariatric surgery at the clinic from 2004-2017 were matched in a 1:3 ratio to about 15,000 obese patients who did not have the surgery.

The research showed that patients with prior weight loss surgery had a 49% lower risk of hospitalization and a 63% lower risk of need for supplemental oxygen.

“I hope the findings of this study can help improve the awareness of importance of losing weight," said Dr. Aminian.

Dr. Aminian said the findings can be generalized to any type of weight loss.

In America, 40% of people are considered obese and 10% are severely obese.

He said while many are focused now on ending the COVID-19 pandemic, fixing the obesity epidemic is key.

“I think COVID-19 was a defining moment that could show the health consequences of obesity," said Dr. Aminian.

Zehe agreed. Since her surgery she now feels better, happier and healthier.

“The healthier you are when you get sick, you recover so much faster and so much easier because you don’t have that extra weight that slows you down," she said.