We are three years into the Covid pandemic, and many questions are being asked: Is it over? Do we need to stay vigilant? Should we wear masks? Do we need boosters? Will there be another pandemic? What can we do to avoid another pandemic? These questions are important.
But what are the most important lessons to learn from this Covid pandemic?
How Covid impacts chronic disease
Covid has been a pandemic of the chronically unwell. For the metabolically unhealthy (let’s be honest, that’s most of us) who contract Covid, if you were obese, had hypertension, or type 2 diabetes and developed Covid-19, you were far more likely to experience a poor outcome. Pre-existing conditions were noted in 80% of all Covid-related deaths. A recent study from Israel stated that there were no deaths in those under 50 without any pre-existing medical condition.
There will be other viruses, possibly other pandemics, and at least the annual influenza virus. And while we should continue our efforts to find new vaccines and better anti-viral drugs surely the best bang for our buck will be to reduce the burden of chronic disease and improve our metabolic health.
Not only will this help prepare us for future viral challenges, but there will be other enormous benefits in reducing the amount of chronic disease in our society. There are nearly 2 million people living in Australia with type two diabetes, for instance, and conditions such as Alzheimer’s continue to become more common.
Helping those most vulnerable to Covid-19
There are two ways we can dramatically improve the metabolic health of Australians and reduce the burden of chronic disease: diet and exercise. Many of these chronic diseases did not exist a generation or two ago, so what changed in that 50-odd years? Have we suddenly become lazy, not caring about our health?
It’s suggested that changes in our diet – particularly moving from real food to processed and ultra-processed foods containing sugars and unhealthy fats – have led to the chronic disease epidemic. The food industry has produced tasty, cheap, food-like products with attractive packaging and brilliant marketing.
As a result more than 50% of our calories now come from ultra-processed foods such as processed meats (e.g. sausages and hamburgers), breakfast cereals or cereal bars, instant soups, sugary fizzy drinks, energy drinks, flavoured milks, fruit yoghurts, chicken nuggets, cake, chocolate, ice cream, mass-produced bread, and many “ready to heat” meals such as pies and pizza.
These foods are of minimal nutritional value and contain sugar, high fructose corn, hydrogenated fats as well as additives such as colours, flavours, emulsifiers, thickeners and artificial sweeteners designed to make the final product more palatable.
We need to get back to the way our grandparents ate, focusing on real food such as meat, fish, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. There are many diets out there that have passionate followers, however the successful ones – low carb, keto, Atkins, Paleo – all involve a return to real foods and a reduction in processed and ultra-processed foods.
Real food and our health
I know from experience that changing to a whole food diet can dramatically affect one’s metabolic health. My obesity and pre-diabetes condition were resolved within three months of adopting a way of eating focused on real foods and avoiding processed foods.
There is now mounting evidence that adopting a low carb whole food approach to eating can put conditions such as type two diabetes into remission. This starkly contrasts what we were told as medical students, that type two diabetes is a chronic progressive disease that one has to live with for the rest of one’s life.
Fighting future epidemics
So what can we as a nation do to improve our health and resist the inevitable future challenges, viral or otherwise?
We can start by adopting a low carb approach, proven effective in managing many types of chronic disease, especially type 2 diabetes.
We can educate our children and improve the quality of food available in school. It is hard to believe that soft drinks and flavoured milks are still available in most school canteens not to mention numerous other unhealthy items. We can then, as doctors, dietitians, public health officials and governments, start promoting a healthy way of eating.
We can give tax concessions to farmers who produce real food compared to the food industry. We can institute a sugar tax, limit junk food advertising at times children watch TV, and remove the food industry’s influence on the Health Star rating program.
The Covid pandemic has had disastrous consequences for many. Let’s not wait until the next pandemic before taking the necessary measures to improve our nation’s health.