Updated: Jun 10, 2020
It may come as a surprise to you, but diet is a huge player in determining COVID outcomes.
I’m bewildered at how little the importance of a healthy diet is talked about in the media by experts in the context of the COVID pandemic. It is a relatively easy way to improve your risk factors quickly and without much fuss. It may come as a surprise to you, but diet is a huge player in determining COVID outcomes. And it may explain why some developed countries, where processed foods are the norm, seem to have disproportionately higher hospitalization and death rates.
According to data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the number one determinant for hospitalization with COVID is a pre-existing condition of hypertension. A whopping 57% of hospitalized individuals had high blood pressure as a pre-existing condition. A close second and third are obesity (50%) and metabolic disease (42%), respectively. Metabolic disease, or metabolic syndrome, refers to a cluster of issues all related to poor diet and lack of exercise. These issues include insulin resistance, obesity, excess abdominal fat, elevated cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.
These three conditions are far more problematic for individuals contracting COVID than the conditions that the CDC has highlighted on their page: only 12% of hospitalized individuals had asthma, only 16% had kidney disease, and just 10% had compromised immune systems. Why the CDC chooses to highlight the latter conditions as opposed to the ones causing most hospitalizations is a mystery to me. Although the CDC site mentions “severe obesity,” which is defined as having a BMI above 40, as a risk factor, the hospitalization data actually show that anyone with a BMI over 30, “obese,” is at high risk. Unfortunately, over 42% of the US population is classified as obese. In Canada, approximately 29% of the population is obese. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this data is that hypertension, obesity and metabolic disease, and the underlying inflammation that is common to all three, are issues that should receive far more focus and attention.
Hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and obesity are well-documented as diseases of lifestyle, meaning that changes in diet, exercise and sleep can make significant improvements in their manifestation.
Hypertension, metabolic syndrome, and obesity are well-documented as diseases of lifestyle, meaning that changes in diet, exercise and sleep can make significant improvements in their manifestation. And of these three, changing your diet will make the most significant improvements in the shortest amount of time. Simply cutting out processed foods, refined flours and excess sugars will make a huge impact in just a few days in terms of inflammation levels. Your disease labels won’t be reversed in a week, but just lessening the inflammation will have a positive impact.
Contracting COVID may seem an inevitable fate for us all until a viable vaccine or other treatment option exists. But that doesn't mean that we are powerless bystanders in the story of our health.
In place of those inflammatory, processed foods, eat lots of whole foods, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and good quality proteins such as eggs, fish, beef and chicken. Ensuring that you get enough sleep each night, a minimum of 7 hours, and ideally 8 hours, will further lessen the impact of these disease labels. And make time each day for some healthy movement. Even you don’t have a lot of time, opportunity, space or equipment for an intense, full-on workout, simply set a timer for 15-20 minutes and walk through the house, going in and out of all rooms, up and down the stairs if you have them, until your timer is done.
I hope that a safe, viable, and effective treatment is found for COVID, but in the meanwhile and even well after, we have the power to improve our outcomes simply by choosing what is at the end of our forks. This is something that should be shouted from the rooftops. Empower yourselves, your children, elderly family members, and your friends with this information. It’s the leafy greens, salmon and berries that people should be rushing for in the grocery stores. It’s the garlic, ginger, and herbs that offer the most bang for your buck. With the advent of summer, the produce sections are brimming with the colors and gifts of the season. Take advantage.
We have the power to improve our outcomes simply by choosing what is at the end of our forks. This is something that should be shouted from the rooftops. Empower yourselves...
Here’s your cheat sheet for minimizing your risks in the face of COVID:
ADD in the following - adding in things is always easier than taking things out.
Eat 7-9 servings of vegetables per day
Eat wild-caught fish like salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, etc. 1-2 times/week
Eat fresh fruit to curb your sugar cravings. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit accessible and easy to eat throughout the day.
Fill your plate with lots of vegetables and good proteins. Make sure you have protein at each meal, especially breakfast.
Sleep 7-9 hours each night. Keep screens to a minimum before bedtime. Get some midday sunshine to help you sleep better at night.
Move. Make it easy and doable - take a brisk walk (outside or inside), do some squats at your desk or kitchen counter, go up and down the stairs several times per day, have a living room dance party with the kids, take the dog for an extra long walk, etc. Be creative. Healthy movement is not confined to (now-closed) gyms.
Now for the hard part: REMOVE or greatly MINIMIZE the following:
Don’t drink your calories, that includes 100% fruit juice as well. Opt for filtered water, flavored sparkling water, herbal teas that taste naturally sweet, etc. Stay away from sugary lattes, fruit juices, and sodas. They bring nothing to the table. Nothing.
Cut out or greatly minimize refined carbs and sugars (even whole-grain breads are inflammatory).
Minimize or eliminate alcohol, it’s one of the most inflammatory things you can consume.
Don’t buy packaged or boxed “fake foods” - the excessive labeling, packaging and “healthy claims” are your cue that those foods are not whole, nourishing or satiating. There’s a reason a spinach, apples and other real foods don’t need labels.
So, yes, contracting COVID may seem an inevitable fate for us all until a viable vaccine or other treatment option exists. But that doesn't mean that we are powerless bystanders in the story of our health. Make simple changes that dial down inflammation and dial up nutrient density. Pick one, two or five of the suggestions listed above and work them into your day-to-day choices. The environment that the virus finds itself in (inside our bodies) is an important determinant in the progression and severity of the disease. Your food choices can greatly shape that environment in your favor. Eat well and with good health.
"COVID-NET: COVID-19-Associated Hospitalization Surveillance Network.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://gis.cdc.gov/grasp/COVIDNet/COVID19_5.html. Accessed on June 7, 2020.
“Groups at Higher Risk for Severe Illness.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/need-extra-precautions/groups-at-higher-risk.html#severe-obesity. Accessed on June 7, 2020.
“Obesity in Canada.” Obesity Canada. https://obesitycanada.ca/obesity-in-canada/. Accessed on June 8, 2020.
“Adult Obesity Facts.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
“Most Obese Countries 2020.” World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/most-obese-countries/. Accessed on June 8, 2020.