Preventative care using nutrition amidst a COVID backdrop

While the year of 2020 was a year of uncertainty, it also provided a reset. The pause on society forced reflection on perspective whether it pertained to life decisions, career and even health. The onset of COVID in the United States seemed to have been a bit of a whirlwind from shutdowns lasting two weeks then turning into months to managing the guidelines on the rules of engagement among humanity that many deemed as too restrictive, and then the race to a vaccine.

Disclaimer: I am not against vaccines nor do I diminish the serious health implications some suffered as a result of COVID.

The world has been conditioned to believe a vaccine may be the only way to combat this virus. While I think a vaccine is definitely a tool to have in the arsenal to fight the virus, it is not the only way. While a primary focus towards the end of 2020 was the quick emergency approval of a vaccine, there was a missed opportunity to encourage preventative measures to not only help diminish extreme effects of the virus but also promote overall healthy outcomes for individuals.

So what does that mean?

There is constant scientific research being done on COVID and continual scientific research will be required for years to come to determine the impacts on people’s health as well as the economy and other psychological factors (I’m going to focus on the health aspect for purposes of this piece.. But I also have some thoughts on the economic and psychological implications :)).

The media has conveyed, as per the direction of health officials, higher risk populations to include older individuals as well as individuals suffering from diseases such as diabetes and hypertension. Now, this does not explain all the cases or even all the deaths from COVID. Of course, there will be outliers or “exceptions to the rule.” However, it is important to note that research has shown the particular comorbidities cited are correlated to obesity.

Obesity and malnutrition

Obesity is an epidemic not only in the United States but across the globe. In 2016, almost 40% of adults (18 years of age and older) were considered overweight; 13% of this population were considered obese. The body mass index (BMI) is the primary measure to classify individuals as overweight or obese.

(The use of BMI to qualify individuals as overweight or obese is definitely a topic in itself.

Is it perfect? No.

Is it the most mainstream measurement to determine obesity? Yes.)

A BMI greater than or equal to 25 qualifies as overweight; while a BMI greater than or equal to 30 qualifies as obese. Higher BMI measurements are primary risk factors for:

  • Cardiovascular diseases (primarily heart disease and stroke, which was the leading cause of death in 2012)
  • Diabetes
  • Musculoskeletal disorders

As per the World Health Organization, malnutrition is defined as “deficiencies, excesses, or imbalances in a person’s intake of energy and/or nutrients.”

The three broader categorizations of malnutrition include:

  • Undernutrition
  • Micronutrient-related malnutrition
  • Diseases related to health statuses of overweight, obesity and diet

It is possible for an individual to be categorized as obese and also suffer from malnutrition. There is a misconception that individuals suffering from malnutrition are always underweight or lacking muscle and fat mass. Weight and mass are not qualifying factors for malnutrition; vitamin and mineral deficiencies drive the diagnosis. These deficiencies can also increase the risk of chronic disease.

Obesity and COVID

The effects of obesity on COVID have not been as widely-discussed in the mainstream media over the last 18 months and it is worth noting. All of this data is from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • A diagnosis of obesity tripled the risk of hospitalization due to COVID.
  • Obesity also has been linked to decreased immune functionality.
  • Obesity also can reduce lung capacity which can impact ventilation.
  • It is estimated that about 30% of the ~900,000 hospitalizations (occurring between the beginning of the pandemic, call it March 2020 to November 2020) as a result of COVID were attributed to obesity.

Focus on preventative care with nutrition

The Western diet (also known as the American diet) is high in saturated fats, sugars and refined carbs. These factors contribute to obesity and type 2 diabetes in the United States. Nutrient deficiencies are common as a result of the Western diet. Deficiencies develop over time.

Some important nutrients needed to support the immune system include: vitamins A, C, D, B12, and folate, as well as, zinc, iron, selenium and copper.

The Western diet doesn’t generally provide appropriate intake of necessary vitamins and minerals which can lead to deficiencies and increase likelihood of chronic disease. Focusing nutrition programs on educating the public on the importance of including these vitamins and minerals as part of a balanced diet is the missing piece in the recovery from the COVID.

Conclusion

I propose a two-prong approach in addressing the virus recovery plan:

1- Implementation of a vaccine program to protect the broader population. However, the initiative that has been in place since the spring of 2021 has been ineffective, which signifies the current program has failed in achieving the established outcomes as evidenced by the lower than expected vaccination rate. A focus on vaccines and health education is the way to get it done, not mandates. The reason the program has failed is because it has been ineffective in disseminating transparent and pertinent educational points. The program also has not appropriately addressed specific demographics.

2- A focus on PREVENTATIVE care through nutrition and physical activity. Lifestyle factors are a major determinant in how the body may react to a virus such as COVID (or any future viruses). Lifestyle factors are also within our control. We have control over our actions.

The way I see it: vaccines may help in the TREATING of the virus, but focusing on longer-term efforts that are within the control of individuals (such as nutrition and physical activity) will serve as PREVENTATIVE.

References

  1. Obesity and overweight facts. World Health Organization Web site. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight. Updated April 1, 2020. Accessed November 30, 2020.
  2. Malnutrition. World Health Organization Web site. https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/malnutrition. Updated April 1, 2020. Accessed November 30, 2020.
  3. Overweight & Obesity. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/obesity-and-covid-19.html. Updated September 15, 2021. Accessed September 17, 2021.
  4. Richardson DP, Lovegrove JA. Nutritional status of micronutrients as a possible and modifiable risk factor for COVID-19: a UK perspective. Br J Nutr. 2020;2020:1–7. doi:10.1017/S000711452000330X.

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alliemcerlain

alliemcerlain

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A nutrition enthusiast with a graduate degree in Applied Nutrition. Food is energy. Follow me on Instagram @vitalwellnesswithallie.