On June 1, the New York Times published two articles, exploring what we do know and what we don’t know about the coronavirus and the disease that it causes, COVID-19. It’s a good summary of the knowns and unknowns as we enter our sixth month reckoning with the disease as a global phenomenon.
But I humbly suggest that the great American paper of record omitted one crucially important factor that we certainly do know a lot about: what health factors most predispose those inflicted with COVID-19 to severe illness and death, and more importantly, what we can do about them.
There is little question now that the coronavirus especially victimizes those with poor metabolic health. Obesity, insulin resistance, Type 2 diabetes, and hypertension are all associated with an increased risk of the worst disease outcomes, and are present in an overwhelming percentage of patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Every single one of these conditions can be improved with diet and exercise changes!
The New York Times itself has spread the same message, if intermittently. In “How Poor Diet Contributes to Coronavirus Risk,” personal health columnist Jane Brody argued that the coronavirus pandemic has newly exposed the extent and toll of America’s manifestly poor metabolic health. She surveyed various efforts to wean Americans off of junk food, in hopes that an improved national diet might “ward off future medical, economic and social calamities.”
It was, therefore, a disappointing surprise this week to see the Times fail to address one of the most important lessons of the pandemic.
Some other journalists have not shied away from this vital lesson. Worth Magazine published a searing editorial that identified soda and junk foods as “collaborators” of the virus, undermining our national health and allowing the disease to strike with greater force. In the war against COVID-19, the processed food industry is essentially a fifth column, working for the enemy. But will there be any political will at all to blunt the outsized influence of the food businesses that have always put their profits above our health?
Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who only narrowly escaped his own battle with COVID-19, has emerged as a surprise backer of interventionist anti-obesity measures, including a controversial sugar tax that he had criticized for years. Johnson reportedly blames his own weight for the difficulty he had in combatting the disease. This change of opinion, which seems like pure common sense, has been echoed around the country as advocates push for renewed action to combat obesity.
But in the United States, a country with even higher rates of both obesity and Type 2 diabetes, such calls to action have been comparatively scarce. In the past, political advocacy for diet and nutrition reform has nearly always gotten mired in partisan squabbling. Here was a chance for all parties, united by the universal threat of the virus, to come together to discuss meaningful changes that could help make the American people healthier and more robust, both during and after the pandemic. It hasn’t happened.
I am losing hope that public health experts, advocates, journalists, and politicians might seize the coronavirus moment to frankly address how unhealthy we are, and what we can do about it. Instead, America has gleefully hunkered down with its “comfort food,” even while lockdowns have likely exacerbated the negative consequences of our increasingly sedentary lifestyle. And now, with at least 100,000 dead of COVID-19 – the vast majority of which exhibit diet-related co-morbidities such as hypertension, diabetes or obesity – the nation seems to largely be turning away from the pandemic, eager to embrace normalcy after months of restricted activity.
But going back to normalcy means going back to a reality in which over a third of adults are obese, a quarter have metabolic syndrome, and some 678,000 deaths per year are linked to unhealthy diet. The costs of all of this preventable disease, both emotional and financial, are incalculable. The appalling state of American metabolic health was already a public health crisis, long before the novel coronavirus had infected a single person.
Some of the most important coronavirus risk factors are out of our hands. We cannot change our age, nor can we erase a history of heart or lung disease. Despite a recent slowing of infection, the pandemic is not over. We still need to be mindful of the things that we can do to strengthen ourselves, both individually and collectively, for the inevitable time when infections will again rise. We can improve our metabolic health, through improved diet and exercise.
Metabolic health is crucial to overall health. This has always been true and it’s now more important than ever. In fact, it’s among the most significant lessons that the coronavirus has taught us, and it would be a very bad mistake to ignore it.