COVID-19, Nutrition, and You: Lessons from a Pandemic

We can take steps to be better prepared individually, and as a nation, for future crises.


The COVID-19 epidemic laid bare some stark realities about nutrition in the United States: our food system is fractured, and the resulting poor nutrition and inequities are major contributors to the devastation caused by this disease.

The fact is, the overall severity of COVID-19 cases might have been reduced had there been nationwide access to nutritious food. Poor diet quality increases risk for obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure which, along with age, are the top risk factors for poor outcomes from COVID-19 infection. Tufts research estimated that nearly two-thirds of all COVID-19 hospitalizations in the U.S. might have been prevented if we had a metabolically healthy population. While for many of us consuming a healthy dietary pattern is a matter of choice, insufficient, inconsistent, and unequal access to healthy food means not all Americans can choose to make dietary decisions that support good metabolic health.

Take Charge!

Consider the following steps to help reduce nutrition inequities and improve the readiness of yourself and the nation to weather diseases like COVID-19:

  • FOLLOW A HEALTHY DIETARY PATTERN. Poor diet quality increases risk for problems with metabolic health, and therefore severe COVID-19 disease.
  • PREVENT AND MANAGE HEALTH CONDITIONS. Good metabolic health is a key determinant of COVID-19 survival. Work to prevent or manage conditions like obesity, diabetes, and high blood pressure.
  • ADVOCATE FOR NUTRITION SECURITY. Encourage your elected officials to make nutrition security a priority.
  • BE AWARE. Recognize that access to nutritious food is not universal in the United States.

When Dr. Jean Mayer, the founder of the Friedman School, organized the first (and still only) White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health in 1969, the focus was on combatting hunger. This conference resulted in many of our current national food policies that were essential to increasing access to adequate calories and reducing, although still not ending, food insecurity.

The COVID-19 epidemic has made clear that our current policy efforts focusing on food security are not enough. We must evolve to the new concept of nutrition security—access to food that promotes well-being and prevents (and, if needed, treats) disease, particularly among our nation’s most marginalized populations. Increasing nutrition security has the power to improve health, reduce disparities, lower healthcare spending, and create a population better able to weather COVID-19 infection as well as future threats that may emerge.

While there is no easy fix to our food system, the science shows that policy changes are essential. For example, Congress passed the 2010 Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act to improve the nutritional standards for school meals. Tufts research has found that schools have now become the healthiest overall source of food in the U.S., beating the average nutritional value of food consumed from grocery stores, restaurants, worksites, or other venues. And, the improvements in school meals have been equitable: similar regardless of race, ethnicity, family income, or parents’ education.

Policy changes could also improve nutrition security by integrating healthy eating into the health-care system (such as with prescriptions for fruits and vegetables, medically tailored meals, and nutrition education for health care professionals); continuing to increase focus on and investment in nutrition in our major food programs like SNAP (previously food stamps) and school meals; creating a new National Institute of Nutrition to accelerate science and innovation; and better coordinating our currently fragmented food and nutrition efforts across the federal government. We must also spur on and catalyze science-based business innovation by rewarding—through tax policy, investment metrics, and other market strategies—companies that advance nutrition, equity, and efficient use of resources. The Tufts Friedman School is aiming to lead in science and translation across all these areas.

By supporting these efforts and encouraging our elected officials to make nutrition security a priority, we can create a 21st century food system that has nutrition, equity, and sustainability at its core, and ultimately lessen the impact of epidemics like COVID-19 on our families, communities, hospitals, businesses, jobs, and the economy.

Dariush Mozaffarian

This article was written by Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, editor-in-chief of Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter. Dr. Mozaffarian is a cardiologist, dean and Jean Mayer professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, and professor of medicine at Tufts School of Medicine. His work aims to create a food system that is nutritious, equitable, and sustainable.


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