By Marika Sboros
Is there a simple, scientific way to protect us all from the latest coronavirus pandemic and similar viral pandemics in future? Are governments around the world ignoring it?
Yes on both counts, says US nutrition science researcher and author Nina Teicholz.
In an editorial in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) recently, Teicholz gives the first step on that way. And it has nothing to do with social distancing. Or washing hands. Or face masks – important though all those elements are in these troubled times.
“We need to talk about not only the masks that go over our mouths but the food that goes into them,” says Teicholz.
In other words, she makes a compelling case for a nutrition-based approach to treating and better still, preventing COVID-19, as the newest coronavirus pandemic is known.
The approach is based on timeless wisdom of the ancients. It’s essentially about food instead of drugs as medicine. But not just any food. In the editorial headline, Teicholz gives another vital step: A Low-Carb Strategy for Fighting the Pandemic’s Toll. And another: Time for radical change to the US federal dietary guidelines. That’s because they don’t reflect the evidence that eating fewer carbohydrates can help to reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease, she writes.
What do those diseases and guidelines have to do with COVID-19? After all, it’s a disease that affects mostly the lungs and airways, or so conventional “wisdom” has it?
It has lots to with this pandemic, as it turns out. And likely for viral pandemics in future.
Metabolic diseases – major co-morbidities
Obesity, diabetes and heart disease are all diet-related conditions – and why doctors call them lifestyle diseases. These conditions have also all rapidly emerged as major co-morbidities for COVID-19 severity and death.
Research shows that Americans with obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases are about three times more likely to suffer “worsened outcomes from COVID-19”, including death, Teicholz writes.
“Had we flattened the still-rising curves of these conditions, it’s quite possible that our fight against the virus would today look very different.”
That’s not just in the US, where deaths are now well over 110,000. It applies to all countries where these conditions are epidemic.
Of course, it’s practically in the job description of viral pandemics to spread fear, panic and premature death. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is no exception.
The shocking global death toll on its own has rapidly spread fear and panic. At last count, official statistics showed that over 410,000 have died from the virus globally. There have been more than 7-million known cases of infection. All that in fewer than six months. (Those numbers are controversial. However, many experts believe that the real tally of both deaths and infections may be higher.)
Click here to read: COVID-19: BIGGEST RISK IS NOT THE VIRUS!
Teicholz’s reasoning for a nutrition-based approach is simple and scientific. There are pills and surgery to treat the symptoms of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. However, “diet-related problems require diet-related solutions”, she writes.
Official guidelines ignore protective options
In the US, the guidelines are obstacles to progress. They call for a diet high in grains, with more than 50% of calories coming from carbohydrates, Teicholz writes. They “stand in the way” of low-carb (and ketogenic) diets as viable options for the 60% of Americans with at least one chronic disease“. In effect, the guidelines ignore an option that could significantly protect a group at increased risk of coronavirus infection.
Teicholz is as focused on solutions as problems. “Changes in diet can start to reverse obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other diet-related diseases in a matter of weeks,” she writes. She provides robust evidence:
- A controlled trial at the University of Indiana involving 262 adults with Type 2 diabetes. It showed that 56% of participants reversed their diagnosis by following a very low-carb diet. That was with support from a mobile app, in just 10 weeks. The study is ongoing. Participants have sustained results for two years, “with more than half the study population remaining free of a diabetes diagnosis”;
- Since 2018, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) and its European counterpart have included a low-carb diet as one standard of care for people with type 2 diabetes. In part, that’s because a low-carb diet lowers blood pressure and improves HDL, so-called “good” cholesterol;
- A 2019 ADA report stated that a low-carb diet “has demonstrated the most evidence for improving glycemia” (keeping blood sugars in check);
- A paper just published in Cell Metabolism, found that among 7,337 Chinese patients diagnosed with Covid-19, well-controlled blood sugar was correlated with “markedly lower mortality” among those with type 2 diabetes.
Treatment of metabolic disorders is proving to be “a crucial factor for avoiding Covid-19’s worst outcomes”, says Teicholz. (Click here for a full version of her WSJ editorial.)
Elephant in the room of viral pandemics
Support for a nutrition-based approach to COVID-19 is global. In the European Scientist, UK consultant cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra calls obesity “the elephant in the room” and the “real killer” behind COVID-19. Malhotra is now also a consultant to the British government on these issues. In his article, he refers to a recent multi-centre article in Nature. The authors say that patients with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome might have “up to 10 times greater risk of death” from COVID-19 infection.
They call for mandatory glucose and metabolic control of type 2 diabetes patients to improve outcomes. Clinicians need to ensure “early and thorough metabolic control for all patients affected by COVID-19”.
You would think all that would make Teicholz’s message and the supporting evidence into news globally. And that all members of medical, nutrition science, dietetic and diabetic establishments would be lining up to embrace it.
You would be wrong.
When they aren’t actively attacking and denigrating the message and the evidence, some MDs, scientists and dietitians are following their governments’ example. They ignore the message.
That’s when they aren’t telling Teicholz, Malhotra and others to “stay in their lane”. The rationale, presumably, is territorial. Because they are not virologists. Therefore, despite their formidable intellects, they can’t possibly know what they are talking about. I never see the logic of that argument but that’s just me.
Many UK organisations appear fiercely resistant to a nutrition message for viral pandemics. That’s not surprising, given all the vested, industry interests it challenges.
On its website, the BDA (British Dietetic Association, a voluntary association of UK dietitians) gives information under the headline: There is no diet to prevent Coronavirus. It calls on the public and media to “stop the spread of nutrition pseudoscience in the face of the coronavirus pandemic”.
Nutrition establishment closes ranks
It also claims that “good hygiene practice remains the best means of avoiding infection”. If only it were that simple.
The British Nutrition Foundation (BNF) takes the same reactive, reactionary line. “Put simply, there are no foods or supplements that can protect you from the virus,” the BNF claims. “But, in these times of crisis and unprecedented change, it is important that we don’t forget to look after ourselves and take care of our health as best we can.” There’s a kernel of truth in the latter statement.
On its website, Diabetes UK says that “if you have diabetes – regardless of what type you have – you are no more likely to catch coronavirus than anyone else”. And that the majority of people who become infected, whether they have diabetes or not, “will have mild symptoms and don’t need to go into hospital”. They also say that becoming ill can make your blood sugar “go all over the place”. That’s a peculiarly unscientific, child-like way of putting it.
There are welcome signs of change even in the UK. Health Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a new “war on obesity“. That’s after research suggested that a third of UK COVID-19 deaths were linked to diabetes. And the message essentially
At the other end of the professional and scientific spectrum is The Nutrition Coalition (TNC), of which Teicholz is co-founder and executive director. It’s a US-based non-profit, non-partisan educational organization, founded in 2015. TNC’s primary goal is ensuring that US nutrition policy is “based on rigorous scientific evidence”.
Its mission statement is to “fight nutrition-related chronic diseases in America through rigorous science, education, and effective communication”. To that end, TNC is building a broad, diverse coalition of scientists, health-care practitioners, researchers, policymakers, and concerned citizens.
Time to quarantine junk food
Among those is US pioneering physician and endurance athlete Dr Mark Cucuzzella. As governments globally look to lift lockdown, tt’s time to “quarantine junk food“, he says.
Cucuzella is an associated professor at West Virginia University School of Medicine. He has been reviewing the various ways that obesity, diabetes and other metabolic conditions could lead to increased risk for hospitalization for COVID-19. In particular, how this relates to deadlier outcomes for African-Americans and Hispanics.
“To build resilience to viruses, now and forever, we need to talk about better nutrition,” Cucuzella writes.
Ohio University dietetic professor Jeff Volek endorses that message. The cost of avoiding viral pandemics will link to the overall cost of healthcare, he says in The Hill. But the bigger cost the experts need to look at is poor nutrition. And how the current US dietary guidelines are “hurting our nation rather than helping it”.
They also need to look at why “an approach based on the most rigorous science available — one that includes controlling carbohydrates” is omitted from the conversation.
“Nutrition must be at the forefront of the conversation,” Volek says. “With a healthy population, America is better prepared to fight viruses or other unforeseen health concerns.”
Allies against the virus
Prof Muhammad Ali Pate is Global Director, Health, Nutrition and Population for the World Bank. He is just as emphatic in a blog on the World Bank website.
“Now, with so many people falling ill from the coronavirus (COVID-19), unhealthy diets are contributing to pre-existing conditions that put them more at risk,” Pate writes.
Diets are crucial to the health status of people around the world, he says. And food is not a “peripheral concern”, including for viral pandemics. According to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease report, metabolic risks accounted for most of the top five risks of disability and death. More than 2 billion people are overweight or obese, with over 70% of them in low- and middle-income countries. ”
Stepping up nutrition advice, promoting breast-feeding, and fighting misinformation around COVID-19 transmission will help preserve the role of nutritious food as “an ally against illness”, Pate writes.
The nutrition approach here is streets ahead of classic immuno-nutrition, defined as “the effect of the provision of specific nutrients on immune function”. There is growing evidence on the role of specific vitamins, including Vitamin D and C as protective against severity of the virus.
The power of real food
Vitamin D is proving particularly controversial. Some think it’s snake oil. In a recent consensus paper in the BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health US, UK and European scientists warn against high doses of vitamin D supplementation. An article in The Lancet, Diabetes & Endocrinology in May has a very different take. The authors say that a growing body of circumstantial evidence “now also specifically links outcomes of COVID-19 and vitamin D status”.
Vitamin C is worthy of an article all on its own. It is raising an interesting question is scientific circles: Is it even ethical to keep ignoring the potential of vitamin C in fighting this virus? What of future viral pandemics?
However, the message in this report is really all about real food. And by that, Teicholz and others mean the most nutrient-dense food that Mother Nature has to offer. That means animal foods in general, and in particular, foods that are low in carbs and high in healthy fats.
Those are universal messages that give hope amidst the hype, fear and panic in the time of coronavirus and future viral pandemics.