Poor diet and obesity linked to Covid-19-related deaths

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Press release

Writing in European Scientist, NHS Consultant Cardiologist and Professor of Evidence Based Medicine Dr Aseem Malhotra calls on public health messaging to be urgently updated in the light of Covid-19 to ensure people are eating nutritious whole foods in an attempt to reduce risk and subsequent death rates from the virus.

Drawing on UK data he notes that 72.7% of patients admitted to ICU are overweight or obese and that those with the related metabolic syndrome have a tenfold increase in mortality from the virus.

Referring to US data where obesity levels are similar to the UK he notes that only 1 in 8 people are metabolically healthy including less than 1 in 3 of “normal” weight.

Dr Aseem Malhotra, NHS Consultant Cardiologist and Professor of Evidence Based Medicine, who has long campaigned against sugary and ultra-processed food, says his findings, backed up internationally by leading doctors and nutritionists and data coming in from every country affected by the Covid-19 outbreak, can no longer be ignored.

“What is staggering is that looking at all the data, it is irrefutable that metabolic disease is the leading cause of mortality from Covid-19.

“This covers much of what we are already being told, that outcomes for patients suffering from type 2 diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure are far worse than in otherwise healthy adults. What is not being spelled out is that poor diet and obesity is behind this.”

Yet he says that key changes to the way we eat can have significant effects within weeks reducing blood pressure and even reversing type 2 diabetes.

“By immediately cutting out sugar and ultra-processed food and preparing fresh meals, the impact on health can be seen in just a matter of weeks.

“Now we find ourselves in a public health crisis brought on by Covid-19, and can see clearly obesity and diet related disease is behind a significant increase in the risk of hospitalisation and death. With people at home catering for themselves every single night while this virus rampages through the country, the message is not just clear, it is urgent.

“The general public need to be told immediately by official sources to cut out sugar, refined carbohydrates and junk food and switch to a whole food diet abundant in vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, dairy and plenty of protein from pulses, fish, meat, and eggs, to improve their health within weeks to help protect themselves if they contract the novel coronavirus.”

Writing in European Scientist he concludes: “Given the speed at which health markers for metabolic disease improve from dietary interventions, an equally strong if not more significant population health message should now be to “eat real food, protect the NHS and save lives.”

“Such implementation backed by policy changes may not just save hundreds and potentially thousands of lives around the world in the coming months but given the high likelihood of another international viral pandemic in the next decade a healthier population and a subsequently more manageable health service will be much better equipped to handle what would then be a smaller mortality peak on the next occasion.

“Hopefully if and when that occurs a lockdown will not be required.”

Expert reaction

Caryn Zinn, senior lecturer and dietitian, Auckland University of Technology, said…

“The best we can do to prevent getting Covid-19 or to reduce its virulence if you do get it is to have a strong immune system and good metabolic health. To achieve both of these, it’s critical to eat whole unprocessed foods that promote a stable blood sugar – of course alongside other lifestyle behaviours such as getting enough sleep, sunshine (where possible),regular exercise, engaging with friends and family (easily done on-line) and managing stress.

The problem is, in high stress-times, when it comes to food, many turn to highly processed, packaged food for comfort. Now is the worst possible time for such choices. As the government is trying new things some mere endorsement of eating healthy wholefood from our leaders should be mandatory. It always matters to look after your weight, and your metabolic health, but now’s likely the most important time ever to do this”.

Tim Spector, Professor of genetic epidemiology, King’s College, London and author of the Diet Myth, said…

“Obesity and poor diet is emerging as one of the biggest risk factors for a severe response to Covid-19 infection that can no longer be ignored.”

Robert Lustig, Professor of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, said…

“I’ve heard COVID-19 referred to a beast, because it doesn’t distinguish. In point of fact, it doesn’t distinguish who it infects. But it does distinguish who it kills. Other than the elderly, it’s those who are Black, obese, and/or have pre-existing conditions. What distinguished these three demographics? Ultra- Processed food. Because ultra -processed food sets you up for inflammation, which COVID-19 is happy to exploit. Just another way processed food kills. Time to rethink your menu.”

Hanno Pijl, Professor of Diabetes at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands, said…

“In my opinion, Aseem Malhotra again conveys a powerful and important message, not only in the context of the current health crisis, but for the benefit of general (public) health as well. Avoiding junk and eating whole nutritious food is fundamental to reversing the staggering prevalence of chronic metabolic disease, and there’s no better time to start than now’

Dr James DiNicolantonio, Cardiovascular research scientist, St Luke’s Mid-America Heart Institute, said…

“Dr Aseem Malhotra sheds light on the real elephant in the room with COVID-19 and that is the people who are most susceptible to this virus, besides the elderly, are those individuals who are overweight or obese. Not only does being overweight increase the risk of dying from viruses but it also increases the risk of heart disease. He should be applauded for bringing this topic to light and the healthcare system should take notice of this important point of view. The evidence clearly reveals dietary changes rapidly improve health markers of those most at risk of COVID-19. We must help and empower people to make those changes as a matter of urgency’

Dr Campbell Murdoch, GP (Special Interest in Metabolic Health), said..

“Scientific literature regularly reports on hypertension, cardiovascular disease and diabetes as risk factors for worse outcomes in COVID-19. The prevalence and seriousness of poor metabolic health in COVID-19 is an important public health message. But this is not for scare mongering. Dietary change with reduction in ultra-processed foods, sugar and refined carbohydrates can lead to a rapid improvement in metabolic health and weight loss. People need awareness, knowledge and support to make choices that are best for their health. This article is important for raising awareness and knowledge. We must all rise to the challenge to provide support to the nation, and take the necessary actions, to improve metabolic health and reduce the lethality of COVID-19.”

Dr JS Bamrah CBE, FRCPsych; Consultant Psychiatrist, GMMH; Hon Reader, University of Manchester, said…

“COVID19 has brought the world to a standstill like no other phenomenon since WWII. And whilst much of the hype has been about morbidity and mortality figures and managing the pandemic by social measures, it is an inescapable fact that some individuals have been more susceptible to the disease than other because of their inherent risks from overt or covert medical problems. It was not until Dr Aseem Malhotra, renowned cardiologist, drew my attention to risks from obesity and diet related disease that I have become aware that this is a major predisposing factor in the majority of individuals, especially those from BAME backgrounds struck by the virus. Let’s not wait till the next pandemic to implement his advice. Let’s do it now.”

Dale Pinnock BSc ( Hons), PgDip Nutritional Medicine, Nutritionist and Author said…

“The beauty of this is that making meaningful change to your diet is actually quite easy, and in many cases, can actually save you money as well. Start to build your diet around lean proteins, healthy fats, plenty of fibre, and non starchy vegetables.

Think vegetable and goats cheese omelette for breakfast. A good dense salad with a few mixed beans, a few nuts, maybe some cooked meats or tofu for lunch Chicken and vegetable curry with spiced greens or baked salmon and roasted Brussels sprouts for dinners. Delicious food, easy to prepare, and in most cases far cheaper than many packaged foods.

When you eat like this you are creating meals that support so many aspects of metabolic health. They keep blood sugar stable, reduce inflammatory load, cut out the array of pro-inflammatory fatty acids found in processed foods, and have a far superior nutritional density. The other sad irony here is that in many of our supermarkets these foods, that so effectively support our health, are there in abundance and even going to waste, as the nation stockpiles pasta.”

Kimmy Pearson, Harley Street and BANT Registered Nutritionist said

“Associations between our health status and the extent to which COVID-19 is likely to affect us are becoming increasingly apparent. We are now well aware of the increased risk of death to those carrying excess weight.

There has been the tendency to tip toe around the issue of obesity, with clinicians hesitant to point it out to their patients for fear of repercussion and accusations of ‘fat shaming’. While this is without doubt a very sensitive subject which must be handled with care, the current pandemic highlights thevery real fact that overlooking the seriousness of excess weight is costing lives.

BAME individuals are not only more likely to die from COVID-19, this darker-skinned demographic are also known to be at higher risk of vitamin D deficiency, known to play an important role in immunity. The good news is that with positive changes to our nutrition, improvements can come rapidly. On the right diet, body fat can reduce quickly and healthily.

Daily exercise, particularly in daylight and surrounded by nature, can have profound effects on our mental wellbeing, as well as physical. Cultivating mindfulness through practices like meditation and conscious eating can help us become aware of our non-hunger drivers foreating and implement strategies to fulfil those needs more effectively. All of these practices not only have the potential to dramatically improve our physical and mental health, they could mean the difference between life and death.”

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