Can Obesity Affect Your Immunity?

Written by Dr. Naveeda Adam on Tue, 01 August 2023


Did you know obesity can influence how many times you get ill?

Obesity is a medical problem that increases your risk of health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure, amongst others.

Not many know that this excessive deposition of fat tissue in the body can also weaken one's immunity. So let us delve deeper to find out the link between obesity and immunity.

Understanding obesity

Accorded the status of a "global public health problem" by the World Health Organization (WHO), obesity is a lifestyle disease caused by an imbalance in consumption and expenditure of energy.

Chronic inflammation accounts for around 50% of deaths over the world. A large chunk of it is attributable to obesity. The prevalence of obesity among adults over 18 years of age between 2017 and 2019 is as follows:

  • 12.7% in Thailand
  • 28% in Indonesia
  • 44.1% in Singapore, and a whopping
  • 50.20% in Cambodia

From 1980 to 2014, there was a four-fold increase in the number of adults worldwide who have diabetes.

In the South-East Asia region, the number increased from 17 million in 1980 to 96 million in 2014. Most of these cases were attributed to excessive weight gain and obesity, which are important causes of insulin resistance.

Of course, this simplistic description has much more to it than meets the eye. While obesity may predominantly happen due to genetic predisposition, many other factors also kick-start or contribute to making a person overweight or obese.

Symptoms of obesity

Clinically speaking, obesity is determined by Body Mass Index (BMI). While there may be slight differences depending on ethnicity and gender:

  • A BMI above 25 but less than 30 indicates that a person is overweight.
  • A BMI of 30 and higher points to obesity.
  • A BMI of more than 40 signals morbid/super obesity.

Although BMI cannot be considered the sole measure of obesity, it does not differentiate between weight gained via muscle and weight gain via fats. The latter is a problem, which is why other metrics like waist-to-hip ratio are used to determine is a person is obese or not.

Try the Good Health By Yourself Waist-to-Hip Calculator for an instant check!

Obesity symptoms can include everything right from the obvious to the obscure:

  • Fat deposits on the body
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Snoring a lot
  • Sweating a lot
  • Skin-related problems like itching and rashes in places where the skin folds
  • Feeling out of breath due to simple tasks like climbing short stairs or walking a bit.
  • Repetitive constipation or acidity reflux.

What causes obesity?

  • A person with a family history of overweight-ism or obesity will be genetically more prone to having the same condition.
  • Genes significantly impact where and how your body stores fat, how quickly your metabolism breaks down food into energy, and how many calories you burn during exercise or physical activity.
  • We can do many things to reduce our risk of obesity, even if we can't change our genetics. Eating the right foods, avoiding high-calorie drinks, and being active are all important. Foods that are high in calories and low in nutrients, like fried and processed foods, can contribute to obesity. So can sugary drinks like soft drinks and alcohol.
  • Add to that a sedentary lifestyle with little or no exposure to basic activities like brisk walking, jogging, or swimming. You are bound to pile up subcutaneous and visceral fat. The visceral fat build-up is more dangerous as this builds up in the organs inside the belly. Medically known as visceral adipose tissue accumulation, this condition leads to pro-inflammatory metabolic abnormalities, among others.
  • Other causes of obesity include pregnancy, smoking, lack of sleep, consumption of certain medications, and excessive stress.

How does obesity affect your health?

Obesity is not called a global public health issue for nothing. On the contrary, it is a condition that affects one's physical and psychological health.

  • Obesity increases blood pressure and cholesterol levels, thus increasing the risk of heart attack and heart diseases.
  • It makes you prone to specific cancers like cervical cancer, breast cancer, colon cancer, and endometrial cancer, among others.
  • Obesity inflicts excessive stress on a human's musculoskeletal frame, thus causing aches and pains in joints and conditions like osteoarthritis.
  • Digestive problems like gallbladder disease, liver problems, and heartburn are traceable to obesity, as is sleep apnea.
  • Obesity affects insulin function and raises the risk of insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. It is also seen to affect a person's immunity. As a result, it causes various health problems that stem from a compromised immune system.

What is the importance of inflammation in the immune response?

Researchers have keenly observed the multi-layered relation between obesity, inflammation, and meta-inflammation in the past few decades. Let us first understand what exactly inflammation is to decipher the immune system's inflammatory response.

Our body has an inbuilt immune system that protects us from external agents. These could include bacteria, viruses, toxic chemicals, etc.

Suppose the body senses the entry of these offensive agents. In that case, the immune system activates itself. It sends out inflammatory cells and pro-inflammatory cytokines (a type of protein) that stimulate more inflammatory cells to stop the offensive agent in its path before it can cause too much damage. The stoppage can be in the form of swelling, bruise, scabs, etc.

Inflammation is of two kinds: acute and chronic.

  • Acute inflammation is an immediate and short-term response. For instance, if you fall and hurt your knee, the immune system will immediately start sending its inflammatory cells to begin the process of scabbing and healing.
  • Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, leads to several long-lasting health problems such as inflammatory arthritis (which includes a group of ailments such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, etc.), inflammatory bowel diseases, asthma, heart disease, Alzheimer's disease, type-2 diabetes, and some cancers. Certain lifestyle factors contribute to the development of chronic inflammation, viz. Alcohol consumption, smoking, chronic stress, and obesity.

Obesity, immunity, and inflammation - The connection

Obesity is a significant factor in low immune system causes, making way for a suppressed immune system.

The waist-to-hip ratio becomes vital because several studies point to the fat accumulated near the belly being more causative of an underactive immune system or malfunctioning immune system rather than body fat spread all over the human frame. Chronic inflammation has its roots in the bridge between adipose tissue and our immune system.

1. Deep belly fat-related immunity problems

While obesity brings a lot of health problems to the bearer, the visceral adipose tissue, aka deep belly fat, is an interestingly important part of our immune system, as it contains different types of cells of the innate as well as the adaptive immune system.

Immune cells are essential in determining the working of adipocyte metabolism, and adipocytes (fat cells) regulate the working of these immune cells. Add to it adipocytes also, pro-inflammatory cytokines, and adipokines. This help maintains the body's immune system and combat infections.

Obesity causes severe disruptions in the immune and endocrine functions of deep belly fat. This causes tissue damage and inflammation and consequentially leads to diseases linked to chronic inflammation, such as type 2 diabetes and inflammatory arthritis, among others.

This is mainly seen in adipose tissue inflammation related to the momentum, i.e., fat folds hanging below the stomach. Omental adipose tissues contain T-lymphocytes that have more pro-inflammatory cytokines than can be found anywhere else in the body.

However, a high-fat diet can switch the production and functioning of cytokines to a permanent state, thus increasing the risk of chronic inflammation and related health problems.

2. Overall body fat and immunity problems

Awareness is increasing that fats are an active endocrine organ in themselves! Earlier, it was thought that only white blood cells could produce cytokines. Still, it is proven that even adipocytes, Aka fat cells, can emit cytokines that strengthen immunity.

However, the more fat deposits in the body, the more cytokines are produced because excessive fat puts the body into a permanent 'firefighting mode, thus making the body prone to constant aka chronic inflammation.

Does sugar lower immunity? Yes!

Suppose your diet comprises foods rich in added sugar and refined carbohydrates. In that case, it will not only lead to obesity and insulin resistance, and chronic inflammation, as seen above. Obesity in itself leads to an impaired immune system.

Apart from that, when fat/protein combines with sugar in the bloodstream, it creates a harmful compound called Advanced glycation end products (AGE's) which, in turn, leads to oxidative stress and inflammation. Further, high sugar levels heighten gut permeability, thus allowing toxins and bacteria to move into the bloodstream more quickly and cause inflammation.

Sugary foods also increase LDL cholesterol, increasing the C-reactive protein - an essential marker for inflammation.

Besides causing chronic inflammation, a high sugar diet also leads to oxidative damage, increasing your chances of catching infections.

Keep your weight and immunity under check?

Measure your BMI

How to tackle obesity to enhance immunity

If you are wondering how to have a robust immune system, try to not become obese! Obesity and immunity-related inflammation are locked in a vicious circle wherein obesity increase inflammation, and inflammation makes it difficult to reduce obesity.

Hence, eat a healthy diet. Stay away from sugary foods and foods containing refined carbohydrates.

An ideal diet for an obese person should include foods containing:

  • Omega-3 such as tofu, walnuts, fish, and leafy greens;
  • Foods rich in omega-6 such as soybean, corn, eggs, and poultry, vegetables, fruit, and
  • Plant-based oil such as olive oil.
  • Try not to lead a completely sedentary lifestyle. Instead, start light exercises such as brisk walking and jogging, depending on your age and capacity. In addition, yoga is an excellent option to promote physical and mental wellness.
  • Finally, lower your stress levels and get enough sleep.


It is never too late. Even though it may seem daunting at first, it is always advisable to reduce obesity rather than deal with ailments related to chronic inflammation that stems from the impaired immune response. Make a choice wisely.

Read more on ways to strengthen your immune system.


Dr. Naveeda Adam

Dr Naveeda Adam is currently Medical Officer of the Gastrology Department at the Muhimbili National Hospital, Dar es Salam, Tanzania.

Did you like our Article?





Not Sure




Leave a Comment

  1. OAC - Obesity and the Immune System
  2. ResearchGate - Factors Associated with Obesity in Adults in South East Asia
  3. Endocrine Web - Obesity and Inflammation: A Vicious Cycle
  4. World Obesity - What causes obesity? In its simplest sense, the body gains fat when it stores excess energy, and this excess energy arises from consuming more food energy than is burnt in physiological metabolism.
  5. Taylor & Francis Online - Is visceral obesity the cause of the metabolic syndrome?
  6. InBody - How Body Fat Sabotages Your Immune System
  7. Mayo Clinic - Obesity
  8. Biovendor - Can belly fat help to fight with Infections?
  9. Cleveland Clinic - Inflammation
  10. NIH - Obesity, inflammation and the immune system
  11. Nature - Obesity and visceral fat: a growing inflammatory disease

Our team of experts frequently monitors developments in the health and wellness field, and we update our articles when new information becomes available.

Current Version

Aug, 01 2023

Written By

Dr. Naveeda Adam