It was clear from the beginning of the pandemic that individuals who are obese and contracted Covid-19, were at a greater risk for severe illness increasing their chance of ending up in the ICU on a ventilator.
Now, a recent study confirms this finding that patients with the virus, who became ill enough to require admission to an ICU and required invasive mechanical ventilation, had a higher amount of visceral fat in the central abdominal area of the body. Several other studies have come to this same conclusion of patients with a critical case of Covid-19, had higher visceral adipose tissue when compared to leaner patients with Covid-19.
What is visceral fat?
Visceral fat is a type of body fat stored deep within the abdominal cavity putting it within proximity to several vital organs such as the liver, stomach, and intestines. Visceral fat can also build up in arteries, clogging them. It is sometimes referred to as “metabolically active fat” since it can actively increase health problems since as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and stroke.
There is also another type of fat called subcutaneous fat that is found just beneath the skin’s surface. Subcutaneous fat is not active and therefore, is not considered to be that harmful.
A quick way to find out if you are carrying excessive amounts of visceral fat is to measure your bare waist with a cloth tape measure. Stand up to get an accurate measurement, then wrap the tape measure around the widest part of your stomach, across your belly button. The tape measure should rest gently on your skin. Once the tape measure is positioned correctly, breathe in gently and then take the measurement on the exhale. Take the measurement two or three times to make sure you get a consistent reading. Holding the tape too tight so that it digs into your flesh or holding it too loosely so that it droops will cause you to get an incorrect result.
Men who have a waist measurement of 40 inches or higher and women with a waist measurement of 35 inches or higher, likely have too much visceral fat.
For this new study, researchers conducted a meta-analysis and systemic review of six studies involving 560 individuals with Covid-19 who were admitted to the ICU or treated with invasive mechanical ventilation. All six of the studies included data on the distribution of body fat mass with the researchers reviewing the association between Covid-19 ICU admission or mechanical ventilation and quantified fat mass.
Results showed that the individuals with Covid-19 admitted to the ICU had a higher visceral fat distribution than individuals admitted to the hospital but not admitted to the ICU. This same finding was also true for individuals needing mechanical ventilation who were found to have more visceral fat than patients not requiring mechanical ventilation.
What about individuals with subcutaneous fat, did it show an association with Covid-19 severity? Researchers found that there was no association between subcutaneous fat mass and a higher risk for ICU admission.
One of the six studies the researchers evaluated found that for every 10 cm2 of total fat area, it increased the odds for ICU admission and invasive mechanical ventilation, while a different study found that total fat area was a risk factor for ICU admission.
Take away from the study
One of many lessons learned from Covid-19 is that people carrying excess body weight and visceral fat are more likely to develop severe illness from Covid-19 with a higher chance of hospitalization. These same individuals are also at a greater risk for ICU admissions and a need for mechanical ventilation.
No doubt, Covid-19 seems to be especially tough on those carrying excess visceral fat within the abdominal area. The question to ask is why? Why does obesity seem to increase the severity of Covid-19?
One clue may be that certain fat cells around some organs appear to be a haven for inflammatory factors. We’ve learned that the virus attaches to fat which may explain why visceral fat is sort of like a refuge and site for Covid-19 which ultimately, can lead to more severe and life-threatening disease.
The information gathered from this meta-analysis is a stark reminder that we need to have more preventative measures helping teach both adults and children better eating and exercise habits in order to reach and maintain healthy body weight. We all come in different body sizes but it’s still important to take good care of our bodies with the intention of gaining good health.