Photo by Hao Ji on Unsplash
In Part 1 I explained how exercise helps prevent immunosenescence, defined as the gradual decline of our immune system which leaves us more vulnerable to infections and even cancer. In Part 2 I will show how our diet is the single most important predictor of whether our immune system is strong enough to defeat the coronavirus, as well as prevent and reverse chronic disease.
The Covid-19 pandemic has served as a reminder that type 2 diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease have a lot in common in terms of affecting the same individuals and increasing the risk of complications. The large majority of Covid related deaths have been people who suffered from one or several of these co-morbidities. And as all the focus has been on creating and distributing vaccines, one is left to wonder why the public isn’t reminded that many of these health conditions that make them vulnerable to Sars-Cov-2 are in fact reversible with a proper diet.
I often repeat to my clients that common comorbidities, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, are mainly caused by poor lifestyle choices that send people down the highly predictable path of our disease-care system- and it rarely ends well regardless of all the available medications used to camouflage symptoms. Nevertheless, it has become abundantly clear that from the perspective of pharmaceutical companies, working closely with government, the number one solution for Covid-19 is yet another drug intervention. But we can do better, a lot better. We can restore our health and strengthen our immune system- and this leads not only in being better protected against viruses, but also in raising our quality of life.
High Blood Sugar Weakens the Immune System
A recent study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, estimated that 21% of Covid-19 hospitalizations in the US were attributable to diabetes.1 That’s not surprising seeing as 11% of all 20-79 year olds in the US suffer from this disease.2 In total there are more than 100 million US adults living with diabetes or prediabetes.3 It is important to note that approximately 95% of diabetics suffer from type 2, the form that can be easily controlled and even reversed in just a few weeks with lifestyle modifications.4,5,6,7,8 Perhaps it is important to repeat this: one of the most important preexisting conditions that leaves you highly vulnerable to viruses, such as Sars-Cov-2, can be greatly improved and even reversed in a matter of weeks through proper food choices.
The connection between diabetes and Covid-19 should have come as no surprise; we’ve known for decades that diabetes weakens the immune system.9 Elevated blood sugar levels increase the frequency of flu infections as well as complications leading to more hospitalizations and deaths. For example, a study conducted in Montreal during the H1N1 pandemic found that diabetes tripled the risk of hospitalization and quadrupled the risk of patients being admitted to the ICU.10 This is true even for people with “well-managed” diabetes, meaning that they take their medications as prescribed and monitor their blood sugar levels, yet their risk of succumbing to flu complications remains very elevated.11 This is another reminder that there is a life of a difference between managing/reversing diabetes through proper food choices versus taking medications to control symptoms. It is an important distinction that eludes a majority of people, including many health professionals.
The “Disease-Care” Mindset.
A pharmacist client of mine once mentioned how his customers are delighted to receive their diabetes medications because, in their minds, it offers them the flexibility of being able to eat whatever they want and get away with it. How many diabetics share this dangerous view?
Just this week one of my new clients, a doctor in his 70’s, suggested that there is no reason he should change his nutrition since his diabetes is “well-managed” with medication. To prove his point he then waved his smart phone under his arm to activate a sensor that provided him with a real-time glucose level reading, and showed it to me on his screen. He then swiped left to view his past readings. In his mind, you couldn’t ask for better monitoring, control and management of his disease. Nonetheless, I asked him straight out if he believed that controlling blood sugar with medication is equivalent to having normal levels without any drug intervention. He responded “no, of course not”. Yet changing his diet to naturally control his blood sugar levels was an option that he had never truly contemplated before, neither personally nor professionally.
Diabetes drugs come with a long list of side effects, have a history of harming patients, and their benefits are often exaggerated.12,13,14,15,16 On the other hand, managing and reversing diabetes through a proper diet rejuvenates your overall health, reduces your biological age, and does so without any negative side effects.
Excess Body Fat Ages You Prematurely
Scientists have estimated that 30% of Covid-19 hospitalizations are attributable to obesity.1 This again comes as no surprise since obesity is the perfect model of premature immunosenescence.17,18 Being overweight increases inflammation, causes immune system dysfunction, ages you prematurely and increases morbidity and mortality. In other words, it’s not simply the number of years that you’ve been alive that dictates your vulnerability to viruses, but what matters most are the habits that you’ve maintained throughout your life, and whether they have allowed your body to function optimally. Staying lean allows your internal systems to run smoothly and maintain homeostasis, serving to increase your resistance to viruses and all disease.
A Wrench in Your Immune System
Your body is always busy maintaining a stable and balanced internal environment through negative and positive feedback loops. For example, on a hot summer’s day a thermostat in your body turns on several mechanisms to help you cool down, such as stimulating the sweat glands and dilating blood vessels near the surface of the skin to allow more heat to escape.
We are constantly exposed to stimuli from our environment that require homeostatic mechanisms to maintain healthy conditions in our body. This ever ongoing balance is the foundation of good health and longevity, and is strongly associated with the proper functioning of our regulatory systems, especially our immune system.
Another example of how our body maintains homeostasis occurs when we are infected by a virus. The immune system responds with an incredibly well armed, multi-faceted and strategic attack to clear out the enemy and restore balance. It even creates a memory of the successful battle plan for future attacks. This is what happens in a lean, healthy individual, allowing the person to remain asymptomatic or suffer from a mild case.
On the other hand, the immune army of an overweight, unhealthy individual does not function as smoothly, and often causes more harm by attacking friendly cells and tissues instead of just fighting the virus. Simply put, being overweight throws a wrench in our regulatory internal systems, creating a domino effect with dire consequences- regardless of our chronological age.
One of the largest descriptive studies of Covid-19 cases showed that 77% of nearly 17,000 patients hospitalized were either overweight or obese.19 Covid-19 is clearly a pandemic that would have no legs if it weren’t for the much larger pandemic caused by poor diets.
Overweight Individuals More Likely to Spread Covid-19
While many experts have argued that mask wearing, social distancing and vaccines are the most effective measures against Covid-19, too few have insisted upon the fact that we wouldn’t even be in this predicament were it not for the challenges that stop people from making better food choices. We are now past a year into this pandemic, surely we could have encouraged people to eat better and lowered overweight and obesity rates in this time frame. Why haven’t we?
To reinforce the point that more attention should be placed on nutrition, studies have shown that even flu vaccines are much less effective for people who are obese or overweight.20 Due to their T cells not functioning well, people who are overweight can still get infected from a virus they’ve been vaccinated against. Melinda Beck, a professor of nutrition who has studied the effects of obesity on the immune system’s ability to fight infections, has stated that a "30-year-old obese person has the immune cells that look a lot like what you might expect in an 80-year-old individual.” Vaccines are not so effective for obese and sicker individuals. Only nutritional therapy can solve this problem, yet this is not the message we hear repeated often enough.
More importantly, during the 2009 flu pandemic, it was discovered that overweight and obese people were more likely to spread the disease because they exhaled a higher concentration of the virus with every breath.20 Furthermore, a study on the influenza A virus found that symptomatic obese adults shed the virus 42% longer than leaner subjects, and obesity also increased the shedding duration of asymptomatic adults by 104%. 21 This data is consistent with a recent Covid-19 study showing that volunteers in the top 18% in BMI-years, which stands for BMI multiplied by age, were responsible for 80% of the bioaerosols exhaled by the group.22
We can therefore conclude that body weight and overall health play an important role not only in how people are personally affected by the virus, but also in how likely they are to transmit it to others. Only lifestyle interventions can reduce obesity. If a proper diet could be sold as a pharmaceutical drug, in the climate of the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be deemed selfish and inconsiderate to not take that pill.
Just a Few Pounds Overweight?
Let’s face it, you look good compared to others. You just have a few pounds to lose. No big deal, right? Wrong. A study found that the rate of Covid-19 hospitalizations began to rise as soon as people entered the overweight category.23 In other words, your modest weight gain is enough to place you at higher risk for Covid-19 complications. One reason we have a big problem on our hands is that over two-thirds of Western society is either overweight or obese. Having a high percentage of body fat leads to many issues associated with higher risk from infections, such as reduced lung volume, increased risk of blood clots, fewer immune cells - due to fat cells entering organs and replacing immune tissue- and also poorer performance of our T cells that are tasked with the job of fighting infections. Maintaining an ideal weight throughout our lifetime is crucial for keeping a healthy immune system.
One Meal Can Halt Cardiovascular Disease
Researchers have estimated that 26% of Covid-19 hospitalizations were attributable to hypertension, and 12% to heart failure. This is consistent with the disease profile of a vulnerable person. Scientists have recently begun to look more in depth at how immunosenescence - immune system aging - contributes to the root causes of cardiovascular disease.24,25 A dysfunctional immune system is both overactive and ineffective, creating chronic inflammation that leads to arterial stiffening and high blood pressure. And while many people believe that a weakened immune system and heart disease are inevitable with old age, this is simply not the case.
The good news is that a proper diet can prevent, halt and even reverse cardiovascular disease in a short amount of time. When asked how long it will take to see results my response is always “one meal”. The initial reaction is to assume I’m exaggerating, but I am dead serious.
If you were to test your blood immediately following a single fatty meal you would find a significant increase in a protein called Factor VII, a substance known to increase your risk of death from heart disease and stroke: “When Factor VII is activated, there is an increase in fibrin, the main component of a blood clot. It starts a cascade and eventually a clot is formed. This could later block a vessel and cause a heart attack or stroke.”26,27 Elevated levels of blood clotting factors have been reported in severe Covid-19 cases.28 So, at the height of this pandemic, why weren't health officials constantly reminding the public that, with every meal, we could either increase or decrease our vulnerability to this virus?
Scientists also discovered that ingestion of a high fat meal leads to immediate and damaging changes in red blood cells.29 Dr. Brittain, a co-author of the study, expressed the results as follows: “Your red blood cells are normally nice and smooth and beautiful and the cells, after consumption of a high-fat meal, get these spikes on them.”30 The spikes damage blood vessels, destabilize vulnerable plaques, and can lead to a heart attack.
Consistent with the examples above, studies have shown how a single high fat meal can cause immediate damage to the inner lining of our arteries.31,32 The result is increased inflammation, reduced nitic oxide, dysfunction in clotting mechanisms, stiffened blood vessels that lose their ability to dilate, reduced blood flow, and increased risk of a cardiac event. The damage only lasts for several hours, unless another fatty meal is consumed and the cycle repeats itself. This is why the largest spikes in heart attacks occur during the holidays, when people are more likely to indulge in consecutive unhealthy meals.33 The holidays may have sped up their journey to the emergency room, but they were on that path anyhow.
Despite the 3 examples showing the deleterious effects of a single fatty meal, it is not fat consumption alone that is most associated with cardiovascular disease, but the animal protein that normally accompanies it.34
The convergence of evidence shows that a healthy, low-fat whole foods plant-based diet can prevent and reverse cardiovascular disease, and eliminate the risk factors that predispose people to severe Covid-19.35,36,37 One meal at a time, in just hours, days and weeks we can lower blood pressure, reduce cholesterol, and improve blood flow. We can even reverse advanced coronary artery disease and substantially reduce our risk of heart attack and stroke. Dr. Kim Williams, former president of the American Academy of Cardiology, once stated that there would be no need for cardiologists if people consumed a plant-based diet.38 It would be extremely difficult to mount an argument against his statement, as it would be for this one: we wouldn’t still be struggling with Covid-19 had we used nutrition as a first line of defence.
Becoming Accountable For Our Health
If close to 90% of all Covid-19 hospitalizations, and 94% of deaths are attributable to comorbidities that are largely preventable through proper diet, then can we conclude that poor nutrition is the number 1 cause of death?1,39,40
With the lack of recognition for evidence-based measures that would empower the public, such as proper exercise and nutrition, it is within reason to question if Covid-19 should be an opportunity to further enrich pharmaceutical companies with the status quo, or a wake up call for us to assume responsibility over our state of health?
The Magic Pill
At the start of the pandemic I received a lot of backlash for suggesting that we already had a vaccine for Covid-19: a combination dose of exercise and nutrition. My statement was not meant to be taken literally, but it was meant to be taken seriously. I will raise the stakes even further: The ONLY sustainable and meaningful solution to our health care crisis is to improve our diets and exercise better.
However, I may be biased because I operate a health facility that stands for, teaches and supports the importance of proper nutrition and exercise over unnecessary medical interventions. The same plant-based diet that I’ve been recommending to my clients, long before Covid-19, is the solution that has been unequivocally proven to best prevent and reverse all of the major comorbidities. Good nutrition is the magic pill - and we didn’t have to wait for it. We can strengthen or weaken our immune system with every meal we consume.
It has never been more urgent to empower people with the knowledge that we are, to a large degree, in control of our own health outcome. We can reduce the amount of sick people in long-term care facilities, eliminate crowding in hospitals, save the economy billions of dollars each year spent on managing preventable chronic disease, and build up our immunity to better defeat viruses. Every new threat wouldn’t require us to wear masks, social distance, lockdown, nor hastily accept unproven drug interventions.
Most importantly, we have the opportunity to enjoy every stage of our lives with energy and vitality, as opposed to being limited by disease and living in constant fear. The choice is clearly yours. What world would you like to live in?
Naturopath, Health Educator
Nutrition & Exercise Specialist
For more information on how to boost your health through food and exercise, we invite you to visit our website and learn about our services today.
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Harris, R. (2019, November 24). Excess weight can weaken the flu shot. Retrieved March 09, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2019/11/24/782079520/excess-weight-can-weaken-the-flu-shot
Maier, H. E., Lopez, R., Sanchez, N., Ng, S., Gresh, L., Ojeda, S., . . . Gordon, A. (2018). Obesity increases the duration of influenza a virus shedding in adults. The Journal of Infectious Diseases, 218(9), 1378-1382. doi:10.1093/infdis/jiy370
Edwards, D. A., Ausiello, D., Salzman, J., Devlin, T., Langer, R., Beddingfield, B. J., . . . Roy, C. J. (2021). Exhaled aerosol increases With Covid-19 infection, age, and obesity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,118(8). doi:10.1073/pnas.2021830118
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- Jaoudé, M. (2014, April 26). The leading cause of death in Canada. Retrieved March 14, 2021, from https://markitonutrition.com/videos/the-leading-cause-of-death-in-canada/
Here’s new evidence, published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health, showing that a plant-based diet can protect you against Covid-19.
“Our results suggest that a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may be considered for protection against severe COVID-19.”
While a high protein, low carb diet increases your risk of severe Covid-19.
“Compared with those who followed plant-based diets, those who followed low carbohydrate, high protein diets had >3-fold higher odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19”.
This new research is a very small piece of the large body of evidence showing how the most proven, long-term, and sustainable solution for defeating Covid-19 is dietary change. This fact has yet to dominate the headlines. Why is that?
In Japan hardly no cases of COVID illness or related deaths
And Japan has one of the oldest populations on planet
Japanese some of the healthiest people on planet with very little obesity and better eating habits
Public health experts that have not continually reminded people to eat healthier and exercise, especially during the pandemic, are not deserving of their title. A healthier, active, and leaner population will withstand and defeat a pandemic better than a community of overweight and sedentary people.
Your articles make sense to me, but It doesn’t explain the reason that many COVID patients whose condition deteriorated very quickly and died, were actually athletes and in great shape?
Thank you for your question.
In science there are always outliers, and while it is tempting to focus on them, they clearly do not represent the norm. When we make decisions based on science we must look at the convergence of evidence, and not anecdotal evidence highlighted by the media.
For example, there are some people who have smoked many cigarettes per day throughout their entire lives, are now older and continue to appear in great health – but this doesn’t mean that smoking is okay for you. These individuals are simply exceptional cases.
Here is another example: many individuals have made a lot of money investing in high risk penny stocks, but the evidence is clear that investing in a well balanced, lower risk portfolio will yield greater results for virtually everyone. We have to be able to differentiate between the exception and the rule, otherwise we can get in trouble.
Furthermore, athletes are not necessarily healthy. This article highlights several studies that show how a single unhealthy meal can trigger the mechanisms that cause a heart attack or stroke, regardless of how fit an individual appears to be. An athlete on a meat-centered diet can be at a higher risk of disease than a person who exercises a lot less but consumes a plant-based diet. A famous example of this was the slim trainer on the television show “The Biggest Loser” who suffered a heart attack while on a paleo diet, survived, and then switched to a plant-based diet after leaving the hospital. His case is consistent with the bulk of the scientific evidence regarding heart healthy diets, and not an anecdote that goes against the evidence.
And even so, I stress again that the large majority of Covid-19 related deaths, close to 100% of them, were already sick individuals with several comorbidities. A good exercise would be to check all the references I cited in this article and to read some of the studies.
Society is better served when we look at data in a non biased way, and make rational decisions based on a convergence of evidence, and not on statistical outliers. For more information on how to become a better consumer of health information, I recommend you watch a few videos on my website- such as the one entitled “Nutrition Scam 101: When Doctors Abuse Your Trust”. The videos are under the education tab on the main menu.
Thank you Markito. Very interesting point. During COVID we have to double efforts for eating lean meals and a lot of veggies, I agree with that. In my personal case I lost 25 pounds reducing portions and diminishing fat, oils etc. My arterial pressure are normal low….. the only problem that resist is cholesterol levels. They still high since one year?
Thank you very much Ana!
It is extremely rare to not substantially lower your cholesterol when switching to a proper plant-based diet.
Some people can struggle more than others, especially at the start of dietary changes, but cholesterol eventually does go down. In some rare cases, a more strict therapeutic approach is required before being able to have more flexibility with diet. My clients typically see great improvements in a matter of weeks, as with this this case I wrote about.
Please note that animal protein raises cholesterol. As I mention in the article, it is not fat alone but the animal protein that accompanies it that is most to blame. People wrongly assume that white or lean meat is healthier, but this is not the case.
When someone loses weight by using a portion control strategy it normally means that they are still eating foods that can raise cholesterol. When you consume lots of whole grains and legumes with every meal, without added oils, there is absolutely no need for portion control as it is virtually impossible to overeat due to the high volume, low calorie and high nutrient density of the food. This is especially true when they are sprouted.
Here is an article I wrote on cholesterol and heart disease that might be of interest to you.