When 2 crises collide: coronavirus and diet-related disease
Updated: Mar 19
From its origins in the “wet markets” of Wuhan, China, to the implications of poor diet on survival from infection, the novel coronavirus is a pathogen inextricably bound up with food and nutrition.
By now, we’ve all heard that the best things we can do now to attenuate the spread of the virus include, as the CDC and other authorities have noted, practicing social distancing, washing our hands frequently, covering our coughs and sneezes, and staying home when we’re ill. If you’re a smoker, now is a better time than any to quit.
This advice, while critical, doesn’t address a major underlying issue—that our already-dire state of public health leaves large swathes of the population, particularly older adults, far more vulnerable to developing severe symptoms that require hospitalization or result in death from COVID-19. For most of us, this isn’t a matter of if we’ll be infected, but when. While slowing transmission is key, we as individuals, communities, and a nation must confront this glaring vulnerability to improve survival immediately and in the long run.
Medical professionals on the frontlines of the outbreak in China have reported that diet-related diseases, especially high blood pressure, may dramatically increase risk of dying from a coronavirus infection. This news could spell disaster for older Americans, nearly 80% of whom have more than one chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease. More concerning, over 100 million American adults of all ages have high blood pressure.
From a human biology perspective, it isn’t surprising that older adults are harder hit by this disease given the body’s natural decline in immune function with age, in part responsible for higher rates of chronic illness. However, we should not underestimate the role widespread diet-related disease will play in worsening mortality from COVID-19—nor should we downplay diet’s foundational role in both building up our immune defenses and combating their natural age-related decline.
In one study involving nearly half a million participants, researchers found that individuals who consumed the most fruits and vegetables had roughly 30% lower mortality from respiratory illnesses in comparison to those who consumed the least. Incidentally, those eating the most produce also had 15% and 40% lower mortality from cardiovascular and digestive causes of death, respectively, further outlining the dietary link between chronic disease and poor immunity.
Moreover, in a randomized controlled trial investigating the effects of fruit and vegetable consumption on immunity, elderly participants eating five servings of produce per day for 12 weeks produced more antibodies in response to a vaccine that protects against pneumonia and other “pneumococcal” diseases than participants consuming only one serving per day. This demonstrates that, in just the span of a couple months, older adults who switch to a more plant-rich diet can significantly improve their immune responses to infectious diseases. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, this could mean the difference between life and death.
Beyond individual survival, it is critical that we as a population do our best to keep the rate of transmission as low as possible so as not to overwhelm resource-limited healthcare facilities. This is where broader access to and consumption of health-promoting foods becomes even more important.
We know from research on the spread of influenza that higher rates of diet-related illness and lower rates of fruit and vegetable intake in a given community significantly increase hospitalization rates. Communities with higher rates of obesity, for example, are more likely to see their hospitals inundated during a flu outbreak. Thus, this is not just an issue of personal health, but also a matter of how policy shapes our food environments to either the benefit or detriment of public health.
Sadly, our elected officials have fundamentally failed to address our worsening crisis of diet-related disease—a fact that will surely frustrate our efforts to overcome the outbreak.
Meanwhile, our federal and state governments have continued to subsidize disease-promoting products as Americans grow ill from a diet deficient in foods fundamental to our health—fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. For too long, policymakers have neglected to reign in the Big Food industry, which peddles its ultraprocessed products in schools, hospitals, and corner stores and which knowingly misleads the public. Worse still, only the bare minimum has been done to address rampant poverty, homelessness, and hunger in this country.
In short, we are artificially and needlessly sicker and more vulnerable thanks in large part to our government's failure to invest in public health—simply because it is not politically or financially expedient.
Moving forward from the present ordeal, all levels of government must confront not just the immediate pandemic, but also the crisis that has been shortening and taking the lives of millions over several decades.
The coronavirus has laid bare much of the incompetence and willful blindness public health advocates have been pushing back against. We are determined to show decision-makers that it doesn’t take an ideal world for a healthy, balanced diet to be convenient and accessible to all. In the meantime, during these overlapping crises of diet-related and infectious diseases, let us all do what we can to look out for one another and support those in our communities who are most vulnerable.
Madeline is the Institutional Outreach and Support Manager at Balanced. She holds a B.S. and M.S. in Nutrition from the Univ. of Texas and Tufts, respectively. As a nutrition expert, she advocates for more plant-based dining options in critical institutions with the aim of building healthier food environments and fostering better public health outcomes. You can reach her here: firstname.lastname@example.org
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