The United States is in the midst of 2 epidemics, COVID-19 and obesity. “Teaching real nutrition is the strongest way to build community health” and lessen the toll of the coendemics, according to health care advocate Chris Norwood, a panelist at a virtual event hosted by Newswire. People with chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, have been shown to have worse outcomes when infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Building health resilience with whole food and plant-based nutrition was the theme of the live event. The panel of experts discussed using food as medicine and how adhering to a plant-based diet may aid in lessening the severity of patients who test positive for COVID-19. Norwood, executive director of Health People, noted that the COVID-19 lockdowns contributed to stress eating and lack of exercise, which make chronic diseases worsen even among people who did not contract the coronavirus.
“The COVID-19 epidemic has accelerated the chronic disease epidemics in ways that are almost unimaginable,” Norwood stated. He cited a report from Children’s National Hospital in Washington DC. In the first year of the pandemic, the hospital treated 141 children with type 2 diabetes compared with 50 cases the year before; 60% of those patients had to be hospitalized compared with 36% prior to the epidemic.
Chronic Illnesses Related to Poor Nutrition
The leading cause of mortality in the United States is poor nutrition, said Richard Rosenfeld, MD, MPH, MBA. The severity of COVID-19 can be linked to underlying chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and hypertension, which are usually lifestyle-related. “Almost 50% of COVID-19 patients tend to have obesity, a little more than the general population. What really stands out is that there is a 68% to nearly 70% increase in COVID-19 mortality if you’re obese,” said Dr Rosenfeld, chair of the Committee on Plant-Based Health and Nutrition at SUNY Downstate Health Science University.
In addition to obesity, nearly 60% of patients with COVID-19 have diabetes; those with diabetes have approximately an 8% increase in COVID-19-related death, according to Dr Rosenfeld. Nearly 20% of COVID patients have hypertension, which increases mortality by approximately 6% and increases the risk of developing severe COVID-19 by 66%.
The key to reducing these risks is eating more whole grains, fruits, nuts, seeds, and legumes while reducing salt, said Dr Rosenfeld. Following a plant-based diet may be the best way to prevent or reduce the risk of diabetes, obesity, hypertension, and other chronic noninfectious diseases, he noted. To round out a healthy lifestyle, Dr Rosenfeld recommended getting 150 minutes per week of exercise, sleeping 7 to 9 hours per night, and reducing meat intake.
Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine
One of the oldest hospitals in New York City has established a Plant-Based Lifestyle Medicine Program in January 2019. The program at Bellevue was the vision of Eric Adams, the current Mayor of New York City, who was able to reverse his diabetes with a plant-based diet. Mayor Adams wanted to make sure that people from all socio-economic backgrounds had access to lifestyle and plant-based nutritional information and counseling.
To qualify for the program, candidates must have prediabetes or diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, or any health concerns related to obesity, said Sapana Shah, MD, assistant professor of clinical medicine at New York University Grossman School of Medicine and an internist at Bellevue Hospital. The program team consists of 4 physicians, a dietician, and a health coach.
Since the start of the pandemic, the program has been held online, with group meetings once a week that cover a wide range of topics such as what constitutes a plant-powered plate, how to read food labels, calories, how to prepare recipes, eating at restaurants, mindful eating techniques, how to avoid stress eating, and how to avoid stress and get adequate sleep. Dr. Shah and colleagues are there to support people looking to completely change or modify their diet.
“We’ve known for years that the benefit of eating a whole food plant-based diet protects you in the long term from chronic diseases and improves your mortality; now we know that in the short term this is actually boosting our immune system and protecting us against infections like the ones in the pandemic we’re currently facing,” said Dr Shah. “And it’s not surprising because most of the immune system is in our gut and the gut immune system is fueled by fiber, which is only found in plant-based foods.”
The panel noted that studies show that implementing a plant-based diet reduces the risk of chronic conditions, which in turn reduces the risk of severe COVID-19 by 41%.
Newswise. Beyond delta and omicron: plant-based nutrition for whole-body health in the age of COVID. December 7, 2022. Accessed February 2, 2022. https://www.newswise.com/coronavirus/why-should-we-care-about-nutrition-in-the-age-of-covid-live-expert-panel-for-december-7th-2pm-est/?article_id=761379&sc=sphr&xy=10046411