There has been a lot of discussion lately about the alleged role that diet and nutrition have played in the current pandemic. Proponents of a ketogenic diet (high in fat and low in carbohydrates) have suggested that their dietary intervention was responsible for the decreased number of patients who succumbed to the disease. Similarly, there is evidence that the plant-based diet can help reduce the risk of coronavirus infection. Whether these claims can be substantiated or not, the simple fact remains that our diets have changed drastically during these uncertain times. As the role of nutrition becomes more prevalent in day-to-day life, it is important to learn more about how our diets worked (or failed to work) in the past.
What Did Our Diets Consist Of In The Past?
It would be remiss of us to examine the role of nutrition in the current pandemic without first taking a look at the past. Although the coronavirus had been known for some time, it wasn’t until the early 2020s that it began to take a toll on global health. In the two decades preceding the pandemic, the roles of nutrition and food safety were marginalized, with an increased focus on the management of acute infectious diseases (primarily through the administration of drugs). This shift can be traced back to the beginning of the 21st century, when the incidence of chronic diseases increased alongside diet-related epidemics (such as obesity and diabetes) resulting in a significant increase in the global healthcare burden.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, the worldwide dietary pattern changed. There was an emphasis on convenience, with processed foods occupying a larger portion of food-related purchases. This trend was encouraged by the growing availability of take-away foods and the increased dependence on delivery services (which catered to our 24-hour lifestyle demands). The prevalence of diet-related chronic diseases in adults rapidly increased, as did the number of individuals looking to manage their health through dietary modifications. This increased focus on nutrition can be found in all areas of public health, including the rise of the nutrition-based dietary supplement industry (designed to address the increasing demand for plant-based food products).
A Historic Shift In Diets
It is not only the increased focus on nutrition that is responsible for the dietary shift that we have seen in the past few years. During this same time-period, there has also been a significant increase in the number of individuals choosing to adopt a plant-based diet. This trend towards a more plant-based diet has been attributed to various factors, including nutrition (given the well-established links between nutrition and health) and environmental concerns (given the large agricultural impact of meat production). The impact that these dietary trends have had on public health is dramatic. The worldwide incidence of diet-related chronic diseases (primarily fueled by the increased demand for calories, in the form of carbohydrates and fat) has decreased significantly, as has the number of individuals who have adopted a predominantly plant-based diet. It is important to note that the plant-based diet does not have to be restrictive, with individuals being free to consume animal products as long as they are environmentally conscious (which may explain why vegans have seen such a significant increase in popularity as of late).
The role of nutrition in determining our health and well-being cannot be overstated. It is responsible for the biochemical reactions that take place within our bodies as well as the way that various diseases manifest themselves (in some cases, creating a link between diet and disease that is not easily severed). In light of this, it is important to examine the evidence that supports (or refutes) the connection between nutrition and health during the current pandemic.
The first piece of evidence that deserves our attention is that of malnourishment and its effects. It has long been recognized that undernutrition is a significant health issue in low-income countries, with over 150 million individuals currently going hungry (according to the World Food Programme). One of the major consequences of malnourishment is weakened immunity, which makes these individuals more vulnerable to disease. It is likely that many of those who died from COVID-19 had underlying health issues that made them more susceptible to infection (obesity and diabetes being two of the major risk factors). In the short term, this will result in an increased number of deaths, as those who were already frail will succumb to the infection.
The flip side of this coin is that those who were already well-nourished prior to the pandemic may have had an advantage in terms of their immune system (making them less vulnerable to COVID-19). This is one of the major concerns that those following a plant-based diet may face, as their nutrition status will likely be lower than the general population. It is possible that they will be more vulnerable to health issues resulting from the increased consumption of animal products (given that these individuals are already at a lower risk for coronary heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes).
The Consequences Of A Plant-Based Diet
The way that we eat (especially in the Western world) has changed significantly in the last decade. The shift towards a more plant-based diet has been encouraged by various health concerns, such as the obesity epidemic and the global rise in diabetes rates. The consequences of this dietary shift are becoming more apparent, with recent studies demonstrating that those following a plant-based diet are at a higher risk of developing certain types of cancers (especially colon and rectal cancers). This increased risk is likely attributable to the lack of fiber in these diets, as well as the higher levels of saturated fat and protein (which can increase the risk of cancer development through the production of toxic compounds).
A Plant-Based Diet May Be Associated With A Lower Risk Of Coronavirus Infection
Although our diets have shifted towards a more plant-based diet in the past decade, the trend towards a more vegan diet did not begin in the wake of the pandemic. The plant-based diet is associated with lower incidences of obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and heart disease (making it a popular diet option during these times of economic uncertainty). There is also evidence that a plant-based diet may be effective in terms of preventing coronavirus infection. In a 2009 study conducted in Singapore, individuals following a plant-based diet (which was well-balanced, consisting of all essential nutrients) were shown to have a significantly lower risk of contracting coronavirus (as compared to those who adhered to a more traditional, animal-based diet). Interestingly, the individuals who avoided animal products the most (in line with a more vegan diet) were the most protected against coronavirus infection. This supports the notion that a vegan diet may be more effective (in terms of disease prevention) than a diet rich in animal products.