The nation recently passed another covid-19 milestone: more than 704,000 dead from the virus as of Tuesday. Many of those who died recently had not been vaccinated. So in a ramped up effort to save more lives, some businesses and government agencies are mandating that employees get the shots.
But there’s another lifesaving measure that could also help reduce covid deaths — and deaths from lots of other diseases, too. It’s called a healthy diet.
Despite decades of research that show the benefits of healthy living, many of us have been just as unwilling to change our bad habits as some of us have been to embrace science.
A study published last month by researchers at Harvard, titled “Diet quality and risk and severity of COVID-19,” found a significant correlation between healthy eating and a reduced risk of severe covid-19. The findings also aligned with another comparative risk assessment study “suggesting that a 10% reduction in the prevalence of diet-related conditions such as obesity and type 2 diabetes would have prevented 11% of the COVID-19 hospitalizations that have occurred among US adults since November 2020,” the researchers noted.
In a telephone interview, Andrew Chan, a gastroenterologist and one of the authors of the study, told me, “We understand, of course, that the most important interventions we have for prevention of covid is vaccines and appropriate masking in crowded indoor settings, but there are still other opportunities for prevention that involve healthy foods.”
So why isn’t there more of an effort to ensure everyone has access to healthy food? Where are the mandates against food deserts and food swamps, those socioeconomically depressed neighborhoods where junk food outlets are plentiful but a fresh vegetable is nowhere to be found?
Covid-19 has proved deadly for elderly people with preexisting conditions. And many of the preexisting conditions that plague so many Americans are made worse by the foods we eat.
The most recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mortality statistics are for 2018, and they show how many preexisting conditions turn deadly: cardiovascular disease — 655,381 deaths; cancer — 599,274 deaths; lower respiratory disease — 159,486 deaths; stroke — 147,810 deaths; diabetes — 84,946 deaths; kidney disease — 51,386 deaths.
That’s 2,562,117 deaths, in just one year.
It will be some time before we know the impact the pandemic, and its stressors and isolation, will have on those numbers.
But what we do know is that nutritional ground is likely to have been lost. Schools serve more than 20 million free lunches every day. When they closed at the beginning of the pandemic, many school kids were left without a much needed safety net.
Their parents and grandparents, out of work or underemployed, may not have had the money or energy to prioritize healthy eating. And truth be told, the fear and uncertainty of covid had all of us reaching for comfort foods.
Fortunately there are individuals and nonprofit organizations who have worked to lend a hand and make healthy eating a priority.
The D.C. Central Kitchen, for instance, has an impressive Healthy School Food program that provides nutritious meals and cooking lessons to 16 D.C. public schools. The organization, which began more than 30 years ago feeding the homeless, also has grown to include a Healthy Corners program, which supplies fruits and vegetables to corner stores in underserved parts of the city.
In a bold individual effort, Tracye McQuirter, a public health nutritionist and D.C. resident, launched an initiative Tuesday, called the “10 Million Black Vegan Women Movement.” Her goal is to help 1 million Black women go vegan each year for the next decade.
“Black women experience the highest rates of chronic diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer,” McQuirter said. “We’ve seen the devastating impact these preexisting conditions can have, especially during the pandemic. But most of these illnesses can be prevented and often reversed by eating healthy plant-based foods.”
Chan, the gastroenterologist, agrees.
“We have seen many examples where diet could have a significant impact on diseases that we are ready to throw medicines at,” he said. “It takes more effort and thought to come up with a dietary strategy for disease prevention than it does to write a prescription, or take a pill, but individuals would be better off if they thought along those lines.”
Among elected officials, there is one who stands out on the issue of nutrition: Eric Adams, Brooklyn’s borough president and front-runner in the New York City mayoral race. We met several years ago at a conference in D.C. on the benefits of plant-based foods. Adams, 61, has made healthy eating a centerpiece of his mayoral campaign — the importance of the subject coming as a result of him waking up one morning in 2016 with severe vision loss and discovering that he had diabetes.
His doctor recommended insulin, but he’d heard that a plant-based diet could improve his health so he decided to try that first. Three months later, he had lost 35 pounds, lowered his cholesterol by 30 points, restored his vision and reversed his diabetes.
Now, with millions of people in New York depending on the government to provide food, Adams plans to change what they are being fed. In city hospitals, in city schools, in correctional facilities, in homeless shelters.
“To get people eating healthier, we have to change the culture around food and the government has a lot to do with that,” Adams told me during a recent interview. “Instead of feeding them foods that aggravate chronic diseases — chicken nuggets and other processed stuff — we’ll introduce them to plant-based, whole foods. We’ll help boost their immune systems, start reversing their diseases and set them on a path to changing their lives for the better. With a healthy diet, you have one solution for a multitude of problems.”
It’s not quite the national campaign that this country needs, but it could be a start.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.