It’s the elephant in the room. It’s what no major news outlets are willing to discuss. But it’s the most important part to understanding COVID-19. The people who are most vulnerable to severe complications from coronavirus have chronic metabolic disease(s).
The Stats You Need to Know
In Italy, the average age of death due to COVID-19 was 81, according to a Lancet study. But the data already show that age alone is not the sole indicator of COVID susceptibility. In fact, what we’re seeing in each new study that comes out is just how much of this virus is about weakened metabolic systems.
On average, people dying from coronavirus have 3.7 chronic conditions, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease, according to a recently published NIH study. Similarly, a study in the UK found that 73% of COVID ICU admissions were overweight, a condition linked to those conditions just listed.
While age (particularly, those over 80 years) is the number one precursor for severe COVID complications, weight is almost (if not equally) as important. In the US today, more than 4 in 10 Americans are obese. That statistic does not account for those who are overweight, which now accounts for a majority of the American population. By 2030, it’s estimated that half the US population will be obese.
Perhaps the most dire of any statistic is this: only 12% of Americans are metabolically healthy. Only 1 in every 8 people in the US today lives with optimal levels of blood glucose, triglycerides, high-density lipoprotein cholesterol, blood pressure and waist circumference, without any need for medications.
The situation is dire.
And yet, none of this should be surprising, considering over half of the US diet consists of ultra-processed food. Herein lies the COVID-19 problem: it’s our collective diet (of processed foods) that’s killing us.
Processed Food Consumption in America
Junk food (or, processed food, ultra-processed food) has infiltrated the entire American way of life (and at this point, a good amount of the world). So much so that when you go to the hospital, you are fed with pre-packaged, processed food post-surgery, when your body needs anything but.
In fact, these mass-produced foods have become so prevalent and so unavoidable in our society that there are “fresh food deserts” in America:
Geographic areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options (especially fresh fruits and vegetables) is restricted or nonexistent due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance.
Another way to think about it? The only foods available to you in a 50 mile radius are Cheez-Its, Oreos, Doritos, Goldfish, Wheat-Thins, Ritz Crackers, Kind Bars, Cliff Bars, Nature Valley Bars, and the like.
To be extremely clear, nothing in this list is healthy. And yet, for some people, these are the only options they have. This is how pervasive -- as well as popularized, normalized, and legitimized -- processed food has become in America.
What’s So Bad About Processed Foods?
Man-made and manufactured foods aren’t real. Therefore, to create the food in the first place and incorporate dietary elements (not to mention, addictive properties), chemicals and unhealthy amounts of sugar and sodium are added.
Collectively and over time, these elements (as well as a lack of proper nutrients) give way to chronic inflammation -- mildly (meaning, you probably won’t even be aware), your body is chronically inflamed. It’s chronically being attacked, damaged, and under stress. Over time, this is precisely what leads to diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and almost any other chronic condition.
It’s not just these extreme conditions that are alarming. Excess body fat itself (which can come directly from eating these manufactured, processed foods) interferes with the immune system’s response to infection. Not only does this excess weight cause an exaggerated immune response -- which leads to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), what’s killing people with COVID-19 -- but it may very well play a large role in how long someone will have to fight off the virus.
According to flu data, people with excess body weight carry viruses longer. Meaning, the longer the virus circulates throughout the body, the more it wears down the entire system. The more the system is weighed down, the less able it is to rid itself of the virus.
There are many avenues that can get us to this point. But perhaps the number one culprit is this overconsumption of processed food. It’s where we are now, but we can move away from it.
The Road to Recovery
There will be another virus. Every few years, a virus (sometimes from the coronavirus family) always rears its head:
But how can we be more prepared for the next? Is preparation even an option?
It is. Through lifestyle change. Specifically, the way we eat. What’s more, these changes that we apply to our lives can totally transform our health trajectories in a matter of weeks, no medications required.
Limiting intake of packaged, pre-boxed, more-than-two-or-three-ingredient foods is absolutely essential to our society getting back on its feet.
Prepared, pre-packaged foods are great for their convenience. And, in some circumstances, they can be OK to consume (packaged nuts, nut butter packets, low carb snacks like these). But sticking to whole, fresh, one-ingredient foods (foods that don’t have an ingredients list because they come straight from the ground and are in their most natural, unprocessed state) is the most guaranteed way to ensure that the food you consume is working for you and your most optimal health.
This can be daunting at first. There’s a learning curve (the methods and ways to prepare whole foods, to even the foods themselves -- there are so many to choose from, how can you decide!). But now is the time to embrace it! With a little extra free time on our hands, this is the best (and most suitable) moment to not only learn how to cook and eat these one-ingredient foods, but make it a habit.
Plus, with a pandemic circling above, if the majority of our diets consist of whole foods, our bodies will be that much more prepared to successfully overcome a viral attack.
Changing habits is said to take three weeks, the same amount of time it takes to see improvement in metabolic health following significant dietary change. Some of us have already gone back to work; others are still working from home. Regardless, eating whole foods is something that can be done fairly easily.
If you’re just getting started, read this -- it might just change your entire outlook on how you can easily prepare and eat the most scrumptious whole foods from the comfort of your kitchen.
Why not take this moment in time -- one of change, disruption, and opportunity -- to set this new standard?