CDC: People on the cusp of being overweight have the lowest COVID-19 risk

Health Weightloss Scale
  • The CDC found people with obesity or severely underweight have the highest COVID-19 risk.
  • A BMI on the cusp of overweight was linked to the lowest risk of death, hospitalization, or intensive care.
  • BMI is an imperfect measure of health, but it’s one tool for protecting at-risk people with obesity or underweight.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

People who are nearly or slightly overweight may be least in danger of severe complications from COVID-19, according to a new report.

While obesity has long been considered a risk factor for COVID-19 complications, a report issued Monday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that people with a body mass slightly higher than defined as “normal” may have a lower risk of death and serious illness.

BMI categorizes anything above 24.9 as overweight.

CDC researchers studied data on 148,494 American adults who were hospitalized with COVID-19 from March to December 2020. They found that people on or just over the edge of being overweight – with a BMI between 23.7 and 25.9 – were the least likely to be hospitalized, require intensive care, or die of COVID-19, after accounting for age.

Supporting previous evidence, they people with obesity and people with a lower than normal BMI, such as 18.5 or less, had a much higher risk of COVID-19 complications.

These results suggest that the relationship between COVID-19 and body weight isn’t straightforward, and more nuanced studies like this one are crucial in assessing individual coronavirus risk.

BMI is an imperfect measure of health

BMI is a measurement of body weight relative to height (you can calculate yours on the CDC website). While it’s often used to assess risk of chronic illnesses, someone can have a higher BMI and be perfectly healthy.

“On an individual level, BMI may not be a perfect indicator of someone’s health risk. It’s one of several measurements that we have to assess health risks,” Dr. W. Scott Butsch, director of obesity medicine at the Cleveland Clinic, previously told Business Insider.

That’s because BMI doesn’t take into account body composition (the ratio of muscle to fat), or where body fat is distributed. Both of these factors can be important for health, and for risk of conditions such as metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes.

BMI was created in the 19th century and based on standards for white Europeans at that time, so it may not be accurate for assessing the health of different demographics, including people of different races.

Despite its limitations, higher BMI is a good reason to get vaccinated

While a higher BMI doesn’t guarantee health problems, there’s good evidence that people with obesity are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

For this reason, obesity is considered a qualifying condition for early access to a vaccine in many states.

It can also complicate a person’s relationship to the medical industry, since weight stigma is widespread, leading people to feel shamed and marginalized for having obesity, even by some doctors.

This can discourage people from getting vaccinated if they have obesity.

However, despite the nuanced relationship between weight and health, it’s best to sign up for that vaccine if you’re able, both to protect yourself and the community, experts previously told Insider’s Anna Miller.

“If you can avoid getting COVID, you can save yourself from potentially having to endure not only severe illness and residual complications, but also weight-biased medical care that could possibly worsen your outcomes,” Christy Harrison, an anti-diet registered dietitian who hosts the Food Psych podcast, previously told Insider.