Keith Nunes 2019KANSAS CITY – Second only to age, severe obesity is the risk factor that raises the likelihood of patients infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) needing hospitalization. Interest in where and how consumers shop for food has been high since the pandemic began, but the virus may have an equally significant impact on what products consumers buy to improve their overall health and wellness.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly told colleagues his excess weight is a reason he struggled after being infected and hospitalized with COVID-19. At 5’9” and approximately 245 lbs, Mr. Johnson’s proportions give him a body mass index of 36, which is categorized as obese. Since his recovery and release from the hospital his government is considering investing in preventative and personalized solutions that will allow individuals to lead healthier and more active lives.

Mr. Johnson’s experience echoes what researchers are seeing in hospitalization data. A study conducted by New York University’s Langone Health of 4,103 COVID-19 patients found obesity was the second strongest predictor of hospitalization and progression to critical illness for those with COVID-19, ahead of those with lung disease, heart disease or a documented smoking history. Another study done at Ochsner Health in New Orleans with 3,000 patients found similar results.

This news is troubling given the prevalence of obesity in the United States. The rate of obesity among US adults has reached a historic level, according to the State of Obesity: Better Policies for a Healthier America, a report issued in September 2019 by the Trust for America’s Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Nine US states had adult obesity rates above 35% in 2018, up from seven states in 2017. Obesity rates were at or above 30% in 31 states, and at or above 25% in 48 states.

Beyond their staple products such as flour, milk and pasta, manufacturers of food and beverage products that claim to support improved immune function have seen surging demand since the pandemic began. This near-term reaction is to be expected as consumers seek healthier options. But as the pandemic drags on and more news emerges about how consumers may protect themselves from infection or improve their survivability if infected, manufacturers of products with perceived weight management benefits may experience elevated interest.

This is not to say everyone who is obese is going to try to lose weight. Obesity is a complex condition that develops over an extended period. Despite repeated warnings about the host of preventable chronic ailments that stem from obesity, many people are challenged to effect change. But the swiftness with which COVID-19 has spread and taken more than 90,000 American lives over the course of only 10 weeks could prompt millions to consider paths toward a healthier lifestyle.

Market research published by The NPD Group in February showed that approximately 25% of consumers are following a specific diet plan and another 25% of consumers are seeking healthier options to promote their long-term health. These figures may grow as consumers wait for the development and scaling of a vaccine that will end this unprecedented experience.