Here at Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter we strive to provide you with the latest, science-based health and nutrition information to help contribute to your health and well-being. The COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed that much work remains to be done. According to an analysis of U.S. deaths from February and March of 2020, 78 percent of COVID-19 patients requiring admission to a hospital intensive care unit and 94 percent of people who died from COVID-19 in the U.S. had an underlying medical condition such as diabetes, high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, chronic lung disease, or cancer.
Before the world faced the rapid epidemic of COVID-19, it faced another, slower epidemic: one of poor metabolic health. According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 42 percent of adults and 19 percent of children and adolescents in the U.S. are obese (for adults, body mass index of 30 or more). And the percentages keep going up. Excess body fat causes chronic inflammation and insulin resistance, which in turn can lead to or exacerbate conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver and kidney disease, cancer, and more—the very conditions that increase risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19. Indeed, half of all U.S. adults now have either diabetes or prediabetes. In sum, only about 12 percent of adults in the U.S. are metabolically healthy, meaning they do not have high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, or a large waist. That leaves 88 percent of us vulnerable to the worst of this virus…and the future pandemics to come.
The Role of Diet: The typical American diet, replete with highly processed foods rich in starch, added sugar, and salt and low in minimally processed, nutrient-rich foods like fruits, nuts, seeds, vegetables, beans, whole grains, plant oils, and seafood is the number one cause of poor metabolic health. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, poor diet was the single largest contributor to deaths globally. We now see that the human and economic costs of our diet and other lifestyle choices are even greater than we realized.
The epidemic of poor metabolic health in the U.S. and elsewhere is driven by the unhealthy food environment in which we live. Unhealthy food choices are cheap, plentiful, ubiquitous, and heavily advertised, while healthful choices are often more expensive, harder to obtain, and have a reputation for being bland or boring. And, our lives are also busier than ever, making it tempting to look for quick fixes, single “superfoods,” and nutrient supplements rather than putting in the time, planning, and effort to achieve an overall healthy eating pattern.
It is time for us, as a nation, to make significant changes to the way we grow, manufacture, cook, advertise, think about, and consume food. Otherwise, poor metabolic health, and the unnecessary deaths that come with it, will continue to rise—and we will continue to hold the door open for devastating new illnesses to sweep through our country.
With your subscription to this publication, you have already made a commitment to living a healthier lifestyle. We will continue our commitment to providing you with the information you need to reach your goals.
To Your Good Health,
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH
Dean, Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy