I read this article last week about a recent study that purportedly showed that consuming a healthy diet can reduce a persons risk of developing COVID-19. Honestly, I felt like I didn’t even need to read the article, or the paper on which it was based, because I knew that dietary choices weren’t really going to impact whether or not someone catches COVID. I did read them anyway.
The paper reported that: “improving nutrition could help reduce the burden of infectious diseases”. However they also found that: “The association of healthy diet with lower COVID-19 risk appears particularly evident among individuals living in areas of higher socioeconomic deprivation.” Essentially, people who had less healthy diets were also more likely to be living in poverty, and people living in poverty were more likely to have less healthy diets. It’s pretty much impossible to tease these two issues apart. And it’s pretty useless to simply tell people who are living on low-incomes (or no incomes) to eat a healthier diet in order to reduce their risk of catching COVID by up to 25%. If just telling people to eat more vegetables and fewer highly processed foods actually worked we would all be eating incredibly healthy diets and Nestle and Pepsi Co would be out of business. Like do the researchers think just telling people with very little money, time, or resources to eat healthier to prevent COVID is going to make people run out and load up on kale? It’s seems incredibly naive to me that anyone would think telling people (of any income level) to eat healthier for any preventative reason would be useful. I’m disappointed that this was the main take-away message from the research when the researchers themselves are more clearly making a case for eradicating poverty.
In their conclusion, the researchers state: “Our findings suggest that public health interventions to improve nutrition and poor metabolic health and address social determinants of health may be important for reducing the burden of the pandemic”. Yet the message that came from this to the media was that people should eat healthier as if that’s something that’s ostensibly under our personal control so we’ll just ignore the fact that the real issue is that there are massive inequities in our society. You know that image of upstream versus downstream interventions in health? This one:
Suggesting people eat healthier when they’re dealing with much more complicated issues is like telling the people downstream to “swim harder”. It’s not a legitimate solution. We need to look bigger picture at why people are living in poverty and what we can do to change that (e.g. tax the rich, implement a universal basic income, create better worker protections, etc.).
Can we please stop trying to make nutrition and personal choices responsible for systemic societal issues?
In addition, there are many other ways we can protect ourselves against COVID that will also help to protect those who are more vulnerable: wear a mask, avoid crowded indoor spaces, and get fully vaccinated.