With several months of the COVID-19 pandemic under our belts, we’ve grown pretty accustomed to the risk factors and safety routines.
We know to be extra-cautious around the elderly and immunocompromised. We wash our hands, wear our masks, wipe down our grocery carts, and never leave home without our trusty hand sanitizer (thank you, Trader Joe’s, for that lemon and grapefruit-scented one!). But, what if I told you that almost 1/2 of American adults were actually at elevated risk? That’s right, the most recent stats estimate the obesity rate in American adults is 42.4% (https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html).
There is emerging evidence that obesity is associated with COVID-19 adverse outcomes. So, what do we know?
Lockhart and O’Rahilly published a scientific journal article on June 29, 2020, titled: “When Two Pandemics Meet: Why Is Obesity Associated with Increased COVID-19 Mortality?” In the article, they theorized why those with obesity who contract COVID-19 tend to have poorer outcomes than their non-obese peers. Though they proposed several theories, we will unpack two in particular: elevated cytokines and altered adipose tissue hormones. If those words sound too science-y, rest assured. No biology degree is needed to read this blog, I promise.
The gist of Lockhart and O’Rahilly’s findings is that higher body fat leads to increased bodily inflammation. Inflammation in the body is dangerous anywhere, especially in the lungs for those with coronavirus. So how do these cytokines and altered hormones produce extra inflammation?
Cytokines are tiny particles that cause inflammation in our bodies. Those who are obese have higher levels of cytokines. This is because their body has run out of room to store fat safely, which leads to fat cell die off and the triggering of inflammatory cytokines. Cytokines cause the body to be in an inflammatory state. If this inflammation reaches the lung cells, you can see how an individual with COVID would be in trouble.
Adipose tissue is a fancy way of saying “body fat.” Obese individuals have more body fat than non-obese individuals. Because fat cells secrete hormones, these individuals will also secrete hormones differently than their non-obese peers. Specifically, they will produce more leptin (aka hunger hormone) and less adinopectin (aka fullness hormone). This matters because multiple studies have shown adinopectin to be anti-inflammatory. So, fewer anti-inflammatory hormones means more inflammation in the body. In a mice study, researchers specifically found those with low adinopectin were predisposed to lung injury specifically. That’s why researchers theorize that the low adinopectin levels seen in obesity cause inflammation in the lungs, leading to adverse COVID-19 outcomes.
Okay, I hope you made it through the science talk. The big takeaway: being at a healthy body weight bodes well for many reasons, including better COVID-19 outcomes (should you contract the virus).
If you’re not sure where you stack up BMI-wise, here’s a helpful chart:
Keep in mind this does not reflect body composition, which takes into account lean muscle mass versus excess mass. If you are curious about your body composition, consult a Registered Dietitian or Health Educator. They can help you gage where you are and what a healthy body composition is for you.
Remember to keep adhering to CDC guidelines and practicing safety in your daily activities. While maintaining a healthy weight will help you fare better if you do get the virus, it is not a preventative measure against COVID-19.
Source for COVID-19 and Obesity – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7323660/