Here's why poor diet has a huge impact on the COVID-19 death toll

Even before COVID-19, America faced a malnutrition crisis made worse by widespread food insecurity. These underlying factors, the researchers say, have enabled the disease to decimate poor communities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 42% of Americans are obese. Almost half of adults have high blood pressure, and heart disease accounts for one in four deaths in the United States

When the pandemic was declared in March 2020, a population riddled with underlying diseases was unable to fight off the coronavirus that is causing COVID-19. The US has recorded the highest number of COVID-19 deaths worldwide, with more than 652,000 and an increase of more than 1,000 per day, according to the CDC.

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Researchers are investigating possible links between poor diet and the appalling death toll in the United States. Early studies show that deaths could be influenced by several factors, including vaccination rates, mask and social distancing guidelines, and pollution.
But the types of foods Americans eat – spurred on by government policies and discrimination against people of color – may be another cause, researchers say.

“I think … without a doubt that poor diet has contributed to more severe COVID results, more hospital admissions, 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 that estimated that roughly two-thirds of COVID-19 hospital admissions in the United States were due to just four conditions: obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart failure. Mozaffarian called COVID-19 the perfect storm for these basic conditions to devastate 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 blood vessels and really causes excessive inflammation … so it’s like pouring gasoline on a fire.”

According to a CDC analysis of more than 148,000 COVID-19 patients from April 1 to December 31, 2020, 78% were overweight or obese. The agency identified obesity as a major risk for hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19.

“Our poor diet, our poor health clearly contributed to the extremely sobering number of deaths we have seen from COVID,” said Carey Gillam, 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 had long neglected to endorse healthier eating in America. Your reporting has exposed the links between government agencies and corporations.

“Our government has supported really unhealthy food choices for decades, and they have been led that way by very powerful and wealthy food companies,” said Gillam. “There are programs and subsidy programs that support the cultivation of monocultures, corn and soybeans, which are used as ingredients in many fast foods. There are not many good programs to support the cultivation of organic food or to grow (a) more diverse range of food. “

Racial and class differences

The differences in diet-related illnesses also correlate with the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus on color communities.

A September 2020 article in the New England Journal of Medicine cites a study from five New York boroughs that found the rate of hospital admissions and deaths from COVID-19 was highest in the Bronx, which also has the highest rates of obesity and Has food. related disease of these five districts. The differences, the article said, could have made the district’s predominantly black and Hispanic residents more vulnerable to the effects of COVID-19.

Yuki Kato, assistant professor of sociology at Georgetown University, said access to healthy foods is often restricted in more diverse neighborhoods.

“Food is typically (an) abundance in the predominantly white, middle-class areas,” Kato said. “In low-income areas, the color communities tend to have much more limited options when there are grocery stores.”

Kato co-authored a May 2020 study that found that diet tends to be viewed as an individual choice in society. Instead, the study found, diet-related conditions are the result of the racism and classism that prevails in the production and distribution of food.

“Often the problem isn’t so much that people don’t know that one should eat healthily,” said Kato. “It’s more about having access to the tools to do what they already know what to do.”

Food deserts, where the nearest grocery store is at least a mile away, and food swamps where fast food restaurants offer more than just healthy foods, are typically found in low-income areas. About 39.5 million people live in low-income areas with little access to healthy food, according to the latest USDA report.

Even if a supermarket selling healthier options moves into a neighborhood, Kato says it risks crowding out low-income communities that cannot afford higher costs.

“Is it really a solution to food security problems? ? “

Prior to the pandemic, 22% of Arizona households had “limited or inconsistent access to nutritious and affordable food,” which rose to 28% in the first four months of 2021, according to a study by researchers from Arizona State University and the National Food Access and COVID research team comprised of members from ASU and the University of Arizona.

American Indians and Native Americans in Arizona saw the highest spike in food insecurity, affecting 43% of households, a 13 percentage point increase from pre-pandemic levels. Black households had the second highest food insecurity at 42%, the same rate as before the pandemic. Hispanic households saw a 10 percentage point increase to 39%. Non-Hispanic white households had the lowest levels of food insecurity: 15% before the pandemic and 19% after.

Pantry expands access to healthy food

When the pandemic hungry millions of Americans, community members came forward to help families in need.

Sister Robin Haines, who runs a small pantry in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, said members of vulnerable communities know what is happening.

“People come to us because they say, ‘What I ate at your place doesn’t taste like what I buy in the supermarket,’” she said. “We were able to strengthen people not only physically, but also mentally and spiritually.”

Haines started her pantry, Sister Robin’s Street Market, in April 2020 after seeing pictures of Florida farmers throwing crops they couldn’t sell.

“When I first saw the picture on social media, I couldn’t believe it because we don’t have mountains or hills here in South Florida, and I was like, ‘What is this?’” Recalls Haines. “I zoomed in and it was yellow pumpkin and zucchini.”

Haines drove north to collect the produce and bring it back to her church, where she distributed the food on the street and attracted people through a Facebook event. Soon she was raising money to buy boxes of produce from the farmers, and soon Haines had started her own pantry.

Haines said her pantry initially focused on supplying service workers who lost their jobs during the lockdown, but it soon began to attract people from all over the city. Sometimes she looked after up to 60 families on Saturday afternoons. Now she looks after an average of around 20 families a week.

“In the beginning we had to work so hard with people because they were ashamed; they didn’t want to come back, ”said Haines. “But as we got to know people better, we heard more stories … and that helped.”

Visitors to the Haines Pantry are greeted with a range of products including corn, peppers and mangoes. Haines tailors their service to each customer who walks through their door, asks what food they want from their table before putting it in a bag and sending it on their way.

Haines said she wished the farm-to-community style of her market were more common in America. If so, millions of people could live in a much healthier country.

“COVID just opened the lid to see how crazy things are here in America, firstly in terms of food waste and secondly, accessibility,” said Haines. “Most people can’t afford the kind of food we give away for free. And I love giving things away for free. For me it’s just so radical … and I don’t want to stop. “

However, according to Gillam, the journalist and researcher, it takes a nationwide wake-up call to improve America’s eating habits. Until then, she fears that the country is not prepared for the next crisis.

The data “tells us that we are not prepared for another COVID, another pandemic,” said Gillam. “We have to be careful and get well.”

Story by Robert Tann, News21. News21 reporter Domenica Orellana and Cronkite News reporter Chad Bradley contributed to this report. This story was produced in collaboration with Walter Cronkite School-based Carnegie-Knight News21 “Unmasking America,” a national reporting project on the ongoing toll of COVID-19. Check out the full project and the project’s blog here.