Pregnancy, smoking, vitamin D deficiency and alcohol intake are among the risk factors associated with swine flu complications. Could obesity be another? Since April of last year, 1 in 6 Americans (50 million) have been infected with swine flu, and 10,000 have died.

The epidemic may have peaked, but given the periodic nature of such viral outbreaks, scientists are investigating preliminary evidence linking excess pounds with increased risk of swine flu infection, complications and death. Compare the course of the epidemic in two countries: Canada, where a third of the population is obese, and Japan, where less than 2% are obese. Health officials report that in Canada, 60% of those admitted to intensive care for swine flu are obese. None of the leaner Japanese infected with swine flu became severely ill. Over in Europe, Scotland accounts for less than 1% of the region’s population — yet Scottish deaths from H1N1 accounted for 20% of the overall European mortality rate. Which European country has the highest obesity rate? You guessed it: Scotland.

Our own immunity expert Dr.David Nieman from Dole’s North Carolina Research Campus says: “An increased rate of swine flu in the obese makes sense given the clinical and epidemiological data indicating higher severity of various infectious illnesses in obese people due to altered immune function.” When it comes to swine flu, obesity not only contributes to underlying health problems (like heart disease and diabetes) that make complications more likely, excess fat triggers the body’s inflammatory response, which in turn can suppress immunity. This may help explain why obesity more than doubles the risk of wound infection.

To protect yourself and your family, load up on nutrient-rich foods supporting immune functions, like, asparagus, broccoli, mango, spinach, nectarines, tangerines and guava. In addition to containing immune-supporting nutrients, these fruit and vegetables are high in fiber and water content, filling you up and thus helping you maintain a healthy weight.

Published January 1, 2010