Obesity and COVID-19: America’s Diet Takes Its Toll
We’ve all read countless articles saying we’re pitted in a war against the coronavirus. We question the frequent use of ‘war’ and ‘battle’ when referring to disease mitigation, but if we accept these military terms, we’d like to add ‘collaborator’ to the discussion.
An example: In WWII, the German advance was aided by French collaborators who smoothed the way into their country by identifying weaknesses in French defenses.
In today’s America, junk, processed and fast food, along with soda, are relentlessly hawked by corporations to an increasingly obese public. In other words, the excess calories, sugar, salt and fat that we’re eating and drinking are slowly killing us.
Now, they’re also lending a helping hand to COVID-19—the new “enemy.”
The U.S. military, for whom words like ‘war’ and ‘battle’ are not metaphors, as they are above, is handicapped by the obesity epidemic. They have stated their current pool of potential recruits are so unhealthy, due to obesity and heart disease, that fitness standards were lowered in order to fill their ranks. A 2018 study, “Unhealthy and Unprepared,” concluded that overweight youth are having an impact on the military’s ability to maintain effectiveness. Currently one-third of 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible to join because of their weight.
Data unequivocally shows that being obese and/or having diet-related diseases, such as hypertension, diabetes or heart disease, or the conditions that flow from these like kidney failure, is responsible for 90 percent of non-age-related hospitalizations from COVID-19. So, if it isn’t bad enough that diabetes leads to amputations, blindness and dialysis, it also is a highly correlated factor for virus-related deaths.
Aside from the heartbreak of increased vulnerability to COVID-19, there’s a crippling economic cost. In a truly scandalous situation, America now spends 21 percent of its health care dollars on obesity-related diseases.
A main one of which is the aforementioned diabetes. According to the American Diabetic Association, a third of Americans are either diabetic or prediabetic. The national cost of treatment in 2017 was more than $327 billion, up 26 percent from $245 billion in 2012.
According to the CDC, “Chronic disease accounts for approximately 75 percent of the nation’s aggregate health care spending. In terms of public insurance, treatment of chronic disease constitutes an even larger proportion of spending—96 cents per dollar for Medicare.”
Even prominent bankers, not traditionally focused on issues beyond profit and loss, have raised the alarm. The May 3 Bank of America Global Research Paper on predicted post-COVID economic trends, states, “…[P]ublic health is the new national wealth. Stakeholders will increasingly focus on health-related ESG metrics; governments will come to appreciate health more as an economic resource.”
It’s not often that bankers and health care officials are on the same page, but in this case, they are. The National Association of Chronic Disease Directors has issued this statement: “As the United States seeks ways to regain our economic footing and rebuild prosperity, all should be reminded of the simple but immensely important fact that the nation’s collective health bears both an economic and human cost. Poor health of a population can exert tremendous force on employment rates, interest costs and other tangible factors that ultimately affect the ability to maintain a strong global economic position.”
It’s not like we haven’t been warned. Medical experts have been trying to get us to wake up and smell the roasted vegetables and whole grains for years.
Sadly, however, when Michelle Obama championed her Let’s Move initiative, which included a healthy diet for school children, she was ridiculed by conservatives and libertarians as pushing the “nanny state.” They were fine with pepperoni pizza, sloppy Joes and soda being on the menu. Recently, TV’s Bizarre Foods host, Andrew Zimmern, in a video interview, decried the role the American diet is playing in COVID-19 morbidity. Too bad we didn’t listen to the First Lady.
One explanation as to why we allow ourselves and our children to eat so poorly is hyperbolic discounting, our inability to see the long-term consequences of our short-term behavior. For example, if smoking caused cancer the next day, a lot less people would smoke. It’s the same with food choices. The immediate pleasure of sugary sodas outweighs the possibly of dialysis a decade later.
Why would we steadfastly deny the obvious? Marion Nestle, Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health, Emerita, at New York University and author of Food Politics, Soda Politics, The Unsavory Truth and many other books, told Worth, “The coronavirus pandemic poignantly illustrates why we need food systems devoted as much or more to public health as they are to profit. Profit-making is what drives food companies to push junk foods on us as hard as they can and to lobby government to make sure they can do so with impunity—what happens to human health be damned. If the pandemic teaches us anything, it is that we need a government that supports public health over corporate health.”
Until public policy steps in, nonprofits, such as Wholesome Wave, are helping. Through their efforts with both nonprofits and corporations, fruits and vegetables have been made available to low-income Americans.
When the current crisis moderates and we catch our collective breaths, it will be a good time to look into what food is doing to make our society so health-compromised, so susceptible to new threats. From farmer to consumer, we cannot afford to continue weaponizing our diet against ourselves. Instead, we need our food policies to keep us safe. “Business as usual” should no longer apply. We must clearly see that allowing agribusiness to profit as they have takes a financial and human toll on all of us.