The connection between the pandemic and our dietary habits is undeniable. The stress of isolation, coupled with a struggling economy has caused many of us to seek comfort with our old friends: Big Mac, Tom Collins, Ben, and Jerry. But overindulging in this kind of food and drink might be affecting more than your waistline, it could put you at greater risk of illness by hindering your immune system.
The Impact of the Western DietScientists know that people with preexisting health conditions are at greater risk for severe COVID-19 infections. That includes those with diabetes, obesity, and kidney, lung, or cardiovascular disease. Many of these conditions are linked to a dysfunctional immune system.
Patients with cardiovascular or metabolic disease have a delayed immune response, giving viral invaders a head start. When that happens, the body reacts with a more intense inflammatory response, and healthy tissues are damaged along with the virus. It’s not yet clear how much this damage factors into the increased mortality rate, but it is a factor.
While inflammation is a natural part of the immune response, it can be harmful when it’s constantly active. Indeed, obesity is itself characterized by chronic, low-grade inflammation, and a dysregulated immune response.
How Nutrients HelpNutrients, essential substances that help us grow properly and remain healthy, help maintain the immune system. In contrast to the delayed responses associated with malnutrition, vitamin A fights against multiple infectious diseases, including measles. Along with vitamin D, it regulates the immune system and helps to prevent its overactivation. Vitamin C, an antioxidant, protects us from the injury caused by free radicals.
Why don’t we Americans eat more of these plant-based foods and fewer of the bliss-based foods? It’s complicated. People are swayed by advertising and influenced by hectic schedules. One starting place would be to teach people how to eat better from an early age. Nutrition education should be emphasized, from kindergarten through high school to medical schools.
Meantime, all of us can take small steps to incrementally improve our own dietary habits. I’m not suggesting we stop eating cake, french fries, and soda completely. But we as a society have yet to realize the food that actually makes us feel good and healthy is not comfort food.
The COVID-19 pandemic won’t be the last we face, so it’s vital that we use every preventive tool we as a society have. Think of good nutrition as a seat belt for your health; it doesn’t guarantee you won’t get sick, but it helps to ensure the best outcomes.