Even before COVID-19, America faced a crisis of poor nutrition aggravated by widespread food insecurity. Those underlying factors, researchers say, allowed the disease to decimate poor communities.
More than 42% of Americans are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nearly half of adults have hypertension, and heart disease contributes to 1 in every 4 deaths in the U.S.
When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, a population riddled with underlying conditions found itself unable to fend off the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. The U.S. has recorded the most COVID-19 deaths in the world, with more than 652,000 and rising by more than 1,000 a day, the CDC says.
Researchers are studying possible connections between poor diet and America’s staggering death toll. Early studies show deaths could be affected by multiple factors, including rates of vaccination, mask and social distancing policies, and environmental pollution.
But the types of food that Americans eat – spurred by government policies and discrimination against people of color – may be another cause, researchers say.
“I think … beyond a doubt that poor nutrition has contributed to more severe COVID outcomes, more hospitalizations and more deaths,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy in Boston.
Mozaffarian co-authored a study published in February estimating that about two-thirds of COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. are due to just four conditions: obesity, diabetes, hypertension and heart failure. Mozaffarian called COVID-19 the perfect storm for these underlying conditions to wreak havoc on the body.
“COVID-19 is not just a virus that attacks the lungs, like a normal flu virus,” he said. “COVID-19 is a virus that attacks the blood vessels and causes really excess inflammation … and so it’s like pouring gasoline on the fire.”
According to a CDC analysis of more than 148,000 COVID-19 patients from April 1 to Dec. 31, 2020, 78% were overweight or obese. The agency flagged obesity as a major risk for hospitalization and death from COVID-19.
“Clearly, our poor diet, our poor health has contributed to this extremely sobering number of deaths that we’ve seen through COVID,” said Carey Gillam, an investigative journalist and public interest researcher for US Right to Know, a nonprofit food policy research group in Oakland, California.
Gillam said the federal government has long neglected to support more healthful eating in America. Her reporting has exposed the ties between government agencies and corporations.
“For decades now, our government has really supported unhealthy food choices, and they have been led down this path by very powerful and wealthy food conglomerates,” Gillam said. “There are programs in place and subsidy programs that support growing monoculture, corn and soybeans, that are used as ingredients in a lot of fast foods. There aren’t a lot of good programs out there to support growing organic food or growing (a) more diverse supply of food.”
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