Is diet a risk factor in severe cases of Covid-19?

Each week we learn more about Covid-19 and the devastating effects it is having on the world. From the data that have been published to date, there seems to be some patterns emerging that tell us more about who is most likely to be admitted to hospital with severe symptoms of Covid-19, and some of that has been surprising.

We know that obesity, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes are at epidemic proportions in our society, and we know that this increases our risk of heart disease, stroke, some forms of cancer and dementia, but what is now becoming apparent is that these conditions may also be putting us at increased risk of developing more severe symptoms of Covid-19 too.

That is not to say that being overweight increases our risk of getting coronavirus, but if we are unhealthy, we could be at an increased risk of having more severe symptoms and needing hospital care as a result of the virus.

The good news is that there is a solution, at least to helping to reduce that risk. The solution is to change the food that we eat.

It is estimated that half of our daily energy intake comes from what has been defined as ‘ultra-processed food’, and it is making us sick.

We are eating far too much junk food and it has got to stop. We are eating our way into a lifetime of ill-health and chronic disease, and now it seems we are putting ourselves at higher risk of severe symptoms and hospital admission for Covid-19.

We all know people who can ‘eat whatever they want’ and never put on an ounce of weight. That is not a good thing. These ultra-processed, nutrient-void foods are equally bad for our health no matter if we are fat or skinny.

I think we will come out the other side of this pandemic with a very different view of healthcare. Not only to celebrate our key workers and medial staff who work tirelessly to care for us, but also how our healthcare system impacts the food that we eat.

Look at the media pictures of doughnut and pizza companies proudly telling us how great they are to be sending ‘food’ supplies to doctors and nurses working on the Covid-19 frontline. It is exactly these foods that are responsible for making us sick and tired.

Medical and nutrition research has highlighted the need for a change of diet for years. Maybe now our governments and food producers will sit up and listen.

We cannot go on the way we are. Any cardiologist, GP or nutritionist worth their salt knows that dietary fat is not the big fat issue here. It is sugar, processed food and refined carbohydrates where the problem lies. The type of food that makes vast profits for big companies.

We need to get back to basics

A healthy, balanced, nourishing diet should be made up of real food:

  • Lots of vegetables
  • Some fruit
  • Plenty of healthy fats from nuts, seeds, olive oil and oily fish (butter and cheese are OK too)
  • Good quality protein – eggs, meat, fish, chicken, dairy products, etc.
  • Beans and lentils

The foods we need to cut are:

  • Foods that have an ingredients list that reads like a chemical experiment
  • Sugar
  • Refined and white carbohydrates
  • Too much bread, rice, pasta, cereal – whether it is white or wholegrain

Unfortunately the diet industry has been fuelling the notion that a healthy diet needs to include low-fat (ultra-processed) foods that tend to be high in carbohydrate and are often high in sugar or artificial sweeteners.

It is time for change, for the good of our health. Eat Real Food!

This blog post first appeared as my column in The Irish News on Saturday 23 May 2020.