Body Mass Index is a 'strong' indicator of COVID-19 mortality in visible minorities

The study 'highlights the urgent need for more research into the causal relationship between ethnicity and obesity,' said researchers.

Chris Arnold 3 minute read February 4, 2022
Male on the weight scale for check weight. Diet and weight loss concept.

According to BMI, overweight is 25 to 29.9, while obesity is a value of 30 or more. GETTY

People in visible minority groups living with obesity are at a greater risk of death from COVID-19, researchers at the University of Leicester suggest. 

According to a study shared in MedRxiv this week, Black, South Asian, and other visible minority groups are at a significantly higher chance of death if the person who gets sick has a high body mass index, compared to caucasian people. 

“The increased risks of COVID-19 infection, severe disease and death associated with obesity and ethnicity has been well researched in their own right, but this is the first study to present findings on how the risk of COVID-19 mortality in ethnic minority groups is dependent on BMI, with obesity seeming to magnify the higher risk reported in ethnic minority groups,” Tom Yates, lead author of the study, said in a statement

Researchers monitored more than 12 million medical records, looking for people’s BMIs, and how it related to COVID mortality rates. 

A person’s BMI is calculated using  height and weight, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: weight in pounds divided by height in inches squared, then multiplied by 703. For example, if a person is 5’5 (65 inches) and 150 pounds, his or her BMI is 24.96 ([150 ÷ (65)2] x 703)

A person is considered underweight if BMI is less than 18.5. Normal weight ranges from 18.5 to 24.9. Overweight is 25 to 29.9, while obesity is a value of 30 or more.

Although a higher BMI was noted for a greater risk of death for all ethnicities, the BMI number was significantly higher in white people — meaning that for the same amount of mortalities in each race, white people were usually heavier. A BMI of up to 40 was recorded in caucasians, while the highest it reached for an ethnic group was 32.2. 

“We are learning more and more about this deadly virus and this study represents another important finding,” Kamlesh Khunti, director of the Centre for Ethnic Health Research said. “It highlights the urgent need for more research into the causal relationship between ethnicity and obesity. The research gives insights that will allow health-care professionals and policy makers to put measures in place and create tailored plans to protect people from ethnic minority groups who are overweight or obese and thus try to reduce mortality.”

As of 2018, 26.8 per cent of Canadian adults were living with obesity, and an additional 36.6 per cent were overweight, according to the federal government. That means nearly two thirds of Canadians, 63.1 per cent, were overweight or had obesity as of 2018. 

The study from the University of Leicester does note that only 52.4 per cent of English adults have had their BMI recorded by a doctor in the last decade, and so the data is only applicable to those who have up-to-date records. 

“BMI is a stronger risk factor for COVID-19 mortality in ethnic minorities,” the study reads. “Obesity management is therefore a priority in these populations.”

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here.
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