The coronavirus has added a brutal exclamation point to America’s pervasive ill health. Americans with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases are about three times more likely to suffer worsened outcomes from Covid-19, including death. Had we flattened the still-rising curves of these conditions, it’s quite possible that our fight against the virus would today look very different.
To combat this and future pandemics, we need to talk about not only the masks that go over our mouths but the food that goes into them. Next month, an expert committee will issue its advisory report on the federal government’s official dietary guidelines for the next five years. First published in 1980, the guidelines are meant to encourage healthy eating, but they have self-evidently failed to stem the ever-rising rates of obesity, diabetes and other chronic diseases in the U.S.
Pills and surgery can treat the symptoms of such conditions, but diet-related problems require diet-related solutions. The good news is that changes in diet can start to reverse these conditions in a matter of weeks. In one controlled trial at the University of Indiana involving 262 adults with Type 2 diabetes, 56% were able to reverse their diagnosis by following a very low-carbohydrate diet, with support from a mobile app, in just 10 weeks. The results of this continuing study have been sustained for two years, with more than half the study population remaining free of a diabetes diagnosis.
Other studies have found that dietary changes can rapidly and substantially improve cardiovascular risk factors, including conditions like hypertension that are major risk factors for worsened Covid-19 outcomes. A 2011 study in the journal Obesity on 300 clinic patients eating a very low-carbohydrate diet saw blood pressure quickly drop and remain low for years. And a 2014 trial on 148 subjects, funded by the National Institutes of Health, found a low-carb diet to be “more effective for weight loss and cardiovascular risk factor reduction” than a low-fat control diet at the end of the 1-year experiment.
Since 2018, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and its European counterpart have considered a low-carb diet as one standard of care for people with Type 2 diabetes, in part because it lowers blood pressure and improves HDL, the “good” cholesterol. A 2019 ADA report stated that a low-carbohydrate diet “has demonstrated the most evidence for improving glycemia,” that is, for keeping blood sugars in check. This could be a crucial factor for avoiding Covid-19’s worst outcomes: In a paper just published in the journal Cell Metabolism, researchers found that among 7,337 Chinese patients diagnosed with Covid-19, well-controlled blood sugar was correlated with “markedly lower mortality” among those with Type 2 diabetes.