December 11, 2020

Credit: blackred / Getty Images

When we last spoke with Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, about COVID-19 and obesity back in June, the pandemic was still relatively new. We didn’t know how long it would take to develop a successful vaccine, how many would be affected or who would struggle the most. Mozaffarian was just beginning to sift through some of the early hospitalization data, and he noticed one risk factor that seemed to be particularly risky: obesity. 

Now, with far more data at our fingertips, it’s clear that America’s slow-moving obesity problem has intensified the coronavirus pandemic. Plus, Mozaffarian says greater attention to our diets could have a huge positive impact on future disease prevention as well as on economic security, racial equity and climate change.

Three Takeaways:

  • Diabetes, obesity, hypertension, cardiovascular disease — they all impact blood vessel function and cause chronic low-grade inflammation, Mozaffarian says. COVID affects the lungs, of course, but it also places stress on blood vessels throughout the body. So COVID risk “about doubles” for people with these existing conditions. And one of the reasons older people see higher risk? “They are much closer to having those conditions,” he says.
  • “One of the things that drives me crazy and keeps me up at night,” Mozaffarian says, is the lack of attention to diet and exercise from the government and society more generally. These small lifestyle changes lower inflammation and increase healthy blood vessels — and could decrease COVID risk. They wouldn’t completely turn things around, but “a modest impact when you have a global pandemic could really make a big positive difference,” he adds. 
  • Mozaffarian says the Black Lives Matter movement, in the context of a global pandemic, has had a huge impact on how he thinks about food. “It’s all intersected,” he explains. “If we want to have a resilient population — and we want to have an equitable population, where there’s not these dramatic racial and other inequities — food is part of the solution.” 

More Reading: 

  • If the early data was alarming, now it’s downright stunning. Data pooled from nearly 400,000 patients worldwide has shown that individuals with obesity are 113% more likely to be hospitalized due to COVID-19. See more facts and figures on this in Science Magazine here.
  • Chinese study recently found that the death rate for COVID patients admitted with well-controlled diabetes hovers around 1%. But for those with poorly-controlled diabetes? The death rate rises to 11%.
  • Back in 2019, before the pandemic, Mozaffarian gave us some guidance on how healthy eating impacts overall wellness. You can check that out here.
  • Diet and exercise are, of course, extremely important to metabolic health. But how we discuss these topics, especially with our kids, can be detrimental to mental wellness. Read an article in The New York Times about the concerns here.

Dariush Mozaffarian, health, diet, nutrition, COVID-19, obesity

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