Since the COVID-19 pandemic began almost 2 years ago, our food supply system has been turned upside down. It’s a lot harder to access healthy food, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Now we’re starting to realize the impact that poor nutrition is having on covid hospitalization and death rates.
Like with a lot of health issues, your habits can make a big difference in your outcome. Eating a poor diet makes you more vulnerable to certain illnesses. It can also affect how sick you get, and how quickly you recover, if at all.
Researchers are finding that certain risk factors can affect whether or not a person gets seriously ill or dies from COVID-19.
People with chronic disease or obesity tend to get sicker and die from COVID-19 more often than otherwise healthy people. They were twelve times more likely to die after getting COVID-19.1 It’s shocking and it’s totally preventable too.
The Obesity Epidemic and Chronic Disease in the US: How Bad Is It?
Chronic illnesses are a huge problem in the US. They increase healthcare costs, cause people to miss work, increase stress and mental health problems, and so much more.
Illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and cancer are all chronic diseases. Obesity is a chronic disease too. Obesity is also a leading cause of other chronic conditions. In fact, four out of every ten American adults have two or more chronic illnesses.2
Lack of exercise, tobacco, alcohol, stress and a poor diet are the major risk factors for being diagnosed with a chronic disease. These are all lifestyle choices and habits that can be changed. If we could all get more exercise, drink and smoke less, and eat healthier we’d all be far better off.
But it’s not that simple.
Most of us work more and have less time for things like exercise and relaxation. We work harder to try and make ends meet. Healthy food gets more and more expensive, and so it’s more and more out of reach.
For a lot of people, convenient and cheap food is their only option. Unfortunately, that means most of what they eat is processed and very unhealthy.
Access to healthy food and food insecurity have a long and complicated history in the US. Today, it shows itself along socio-economic status, racial/ethnic lines, and location.
African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities suffer the largest consequences of all of this. Because of this, they’re also more likely to be obese.3
Systemic problems and modern society more so than personal conscious choices are mostly to blame for this epidemic.
Changing how we work and creating safe, vibrant neighborhoods would give people more flexibility. Plus making fresh fruits and vegetables more accessible can go a long way to improving people’s health.
It could save money, hospital beds, and lives. And goodness knows we need all of that right now.
Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Hitting a Crisis Point?
Well, this is definitely a race that you don’t want to win, but let’s face facts. COVID-19 is sweeping over this country with more force than crowds at a Boxing Day Sale at Best Buy.
So far the virus has killed over 800,000 Americans4, and we’re far from out of the weeds. Like the number of common flu cases, covid cases seem to increase at certain times of the year. So far, fall and winter get bad, and 2021 was no different.
In 15 states, there are more people in the ICU now than at the same time last year.5 Imagine how exhausted and stressed healthcare workers feel a year and a half in, compared to a year ago. Hospitalizations are going up and with that, so are the deaths caused by COVID-19.
Because the virus is taking up so many resources, it leaves very little room for other serious medical conditions. There are fewer beds and healthcare workers to go around. One study found that 20% of households had someone who didn’t get care for serious medical problems.6
So, it doesn’t only affect the people with COVID-19, but also other people who need surgery, or have a chronic illness. There’s just no room for them right now.
Of course, this has a major impact on the economy at large. But this also impacts each and every person who is too sick to work and feed their family.
How Chronic Conditions and Obesity Make COVID-19 Deadly
By now we know that vaccinations, mask-wearing, hand washing, and social distancing are important in protecting yourself against COVID-19.7 Preventing yourself from getting this virus in the first place is crucial.
But if you get COVID-19, some factors could determine how seriously ill you get from it. If you’re obese or have another chronic condition it could mean the difference between going into the ICU for COVID-19 and making it out alive.
You see, doctors have noticed that people with underlying chronic diseases are at higher risk of developing serious illness from the virus.
You’re more likely to be hospitalized and even die from COVID-19 if you already have diabetes, obesity, hypertension, or heart failure. A study from Tufts University found that around 64% of COVID-19 hospitalizations could have been prevented if it weren’t for those four conditions.8
Imagine how many hospital beds that takes up, and how many person-hours that could have saved. Imagine how much money and heartache that costs.
Interestingly, that same study found that the rate of COVID-19 hospitalization because of obesity was the same no matter the patient’s age.
Because minority groups suffer from higher rates of chronic disease, they’re also four to five times more likely to be hospitalized because of COVID-19.3
Let’s take a look at the Bronx in New York City. Its mostly African & Latin American residents are the poorest and most food insecure in the city.
Because of this, they have the highest rates of chronic conditions, including obesity of any of the boroughs. Sadly, they’re also the borough with the highest hospitalization rate because of COVID-19.3
Tackling Food Access & Improving Nutrition: Is the Government Doing Enough?
You could argue that an obesity epidemic and a virus pandemic are some of the greatest threats to our economic future.9 The American government must be doing something about this, right?
Yes, it is, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that it’s not enough.1
There is research done by different agencies to look at data and come up with healthy eating guidelines. Other agencies look at teaching people about healthy eating. And some have programs that help with food access.
The problem is that there are too many hands in the pot.
Not enough is being done to actually make a big enough difference. Especially on an epidemic and a pandemic scale. All of these government agencies are each doing their own thing, but is any of it really dealing with the root causes?
The New England Journal of Medicine wants to see more public health policies to address food insecurity and food deserts.3 This is the kind of thing that we need to see happening, that could really make a difference.
Fruits and Vegetable to the Rescue! Proper Nutrition Can Make a World of Difference
It’s clear that there’s a link between food access, race/ethnicity, and chronic diseases. COVID-19 is putting this into sharper focus, and it’s scary.
It’s important to point out that a lot of this could be prevented too.
Improving food access and equity can make a huge difference in chronic disease and covid outcomes.
Eating fresh, healthy food could save our healthcare system so much money and resources. There would be fewer cases of chronic conditions, obesity, and serious COVID-19.
We would be way better prepared to handle a pandemic if everyone was given the chance to live healthier in the first place.
You can understand how for a lot of people right now, making sure they get their daily intake of fruits and veggies is hardly a priority. But if we could make them more accessible and affordable, some people might have a better outcome.
Encourage people in your community to eat healthier, and give them the tools to do it.
Educate people on the risks of chronic disease and how it increases their risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19. Show them how eating more produce can decrease their chance of getting a chronic illness.
These are the biggest problems of our time. And even if we don’t think so, they affect each and every one of us in one way or another. Creating a healthy, functioning food system is one of the most important ways to help end the obesity epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic.