Exploring the connection between U.S. diet and COVID-19 outcomes

Whole Foods CEO John Mackey sparked backlash when he stated in a September 2020 interview that Americans’ poor eating habits—which contribute to obesity—were partly to blame for the country’s high rates of deaths from COVID-19. Some public health nutrition experts say that Mackey is partially right, but argue that it’s wrong to focus on poor individual choices because racial disparities and lack of access to healthy food also play a big role in people’s health.

The experts, interviewed an October 15 article in The Counter, included Sara Bleich, professor of public health policy at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Evidence suggests that having obesity greatly increases the risk of negative outcomes from COVID-19, Bleich said. But she added that COVID-19 deaths are high among Black and Latino people irrespective of obesity, which she attributed in part to these populations’ higher representation in essential frontline jobs with more risk of exposure to the virus.

Bleich noted that the pandemic may result in rising obesity levels, in part because many children in food-insecure homes who are learning remotely may be eating cheaper, less nutritious foods than they would have received in school meals.

Experts quoted in the article speculated that COVID-19 would be less severe in a more metabolically healthy population, but cautioned that it would be difficult to test whether dietary changes improved COVID-19 outcomes.

“We can prop up the federal nutrition safety net, and make that stronger, so people are able to follow a more nutritious diet. We can increase the size of the SNAP benefit,” Bleich said. “It won’t make a difference overnight, but it can help over time.”

Read The Counter article: Does the American diet make us more vulnerable to Covid-19?