Being healthy is a strong determinant of who will get infected by COVID-19 and who will not. The benefits of good physical and mental health in combating disease cannot be overstated. Regular physical activity and a nutritional diet are two of the most important things we can do to stay healthy. In this piece, (first published in Medium) Ellen Moyer explores how improving our diets could squelch COVID-19. She writes that a good diet is “an effective, practical, and enjoyable solution we overlook at our peril.”
Our Diets and COVID-19
COVID-19 has made itself right at home among us. What is our long-term plan? What is our future?
Many of us are social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands, and staying home to slow the spread of the virus. If we get seriously ill, we go to hospitals for help, which may or may not save us. In some places, we use testing, contact tracing, and quarantining to slow the spread. We hope for a “magic bullet,” a vaccine or drug, though with no assurance of success.
When it comes to targeting COVID-19, we have precious few arrows in our quiver. But we ignore an effective defense strategy: By strengthening our health, we can better fend off the virus — or at least not be sucker-punched by it.
Perfect Hosts for the Virus
We can strengthen our defense against COVID-19 with good nutrition, physical activity, sleep, and reduced exposure to toxic chemicals and stress. Diet may be the most important of these.
Only 12% of Americans meet basic medical guidelines for weight, blood glucose, blood lipids, and blood pressure. Seventy percent are overweight or obese. Sixty percent of US adults have one chronic disease; 40 percent have more. Diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, kidney and liver disease, and various cancers are commonly linked to our diets, and some are leading causes of death in the US. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler, MD, blames starch and sugar as the main drivers of the global epidemic of chronic disease.
These diseases also make us vulnerable to COVID-19. In Italy, people with underlying conditions including heart disease, diabetes, and high blood pressure accounted for 99% of COVID-19 fatalities. A recent study showed that nearly all of the hospitalized COVID-19 patients in the New York City area had at least one major chronic health condition; 88% had at least two. Only 6% had no known underlying health condition. COVID-19 disproportionately kills elders, many of whom have a long history of unhealthy lifestyles and chronic disease.
In 2013, Mark Hyman, MD, asked a gathering of global leaders from government and the pharmaceutical, insurance, and health care industries, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to address the root causes of chronic disease that are driving the costs, rather than trying to clean up after the fact?” The room of 300 fell silent. Later, he reflected, “I was shocked. This was so obvious, yet no one had thought of it.”
By cleaning up our diets, a wonderful move for our health in general, we can reduce our risk of contracting COVID-19 or lessen its impacts. This fact is not obvious to many experts. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that “older adults and people of any age who have serious underlying medical conditions might be at higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19,” yet they do not recommend diet improvements to address these underlying medical conditions.
Food as Medicine
In the US, diet is the number-one cause of premature death and disability. A better diet may help prevent, treat, or reverse all of our 15 leading causes of death, often with rapid results. Recommendations vary, but most diet-savvy health care practitioners would generally advise us to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (“Food” in this context refers to whole, fresh food that doesn’t come from a factory.) None would advise us to consume more processed food, sugar, flour, or pesticides or other synthetic chemicals.
The fight against COVID-19 is an opening for us. We can drastically reform our food, agriculture, and health care systems. We can promote vegetables and fruits instead of junk food and factory farms; support organic production over industrial farming with its pesticides and synthetic fertilizers; and teach health care workers and citizens about nutrition, toxic chemicals, and optimizing health. Big industries keep us in a state of chronic disease, while they maximize their profits. We should expect ferocious pushback from them if we overhaul national policies.
We’ll still socially distance, wear masks, wash our hands, and test, trace, and quarantine to further reduce transmission and protect the most vulnerable among us. But if we optimize our diet, we can enjoy greater health and happiness, bring down skyrocketing health care costs, increase economic productivity, help the environment, and more, all while we enhance our resistance to COVID-19.
Enough Is Enough
COVID-19 is costing more American lives than most wars. This is war. We were suffering and dying needlessly before the pandemic, and now COVID-19 is making things worse. We must fight back by improving our diets and refocusing institutions and policies to serve the health of “we the people.” By voting with our ballots, our voices, and our wallets, we can rise to reverse the course of COVID-19.
Ellen Moyer is a registered professional engineer with a PhD in environmental engineering and author of the award-winning book, Our Earth, Our Species, Our Selves: How to Thrive While Creating a Sustainable World
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.