The future of eating after COVID-19: How the pandemic has made us think about food differently

June 27, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is an opportunity to think about what health and nutrition look like for all

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has brought increasing attention to our health. With more than 2 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 120,000 deaths, the US is bearing a terrible burden from this disease. At the same time, there is growing attention on the systemic economic and racial disparities that affect all aspects of life.

Most people recover from COVID-19 fairly quickly, without any serious complications, and some show no symptoms at all. However, for others it can be a severe or even fatal disease and may leave long-term side effects that we are only just beginning to understand. Even for those who are less seriously ill, we don’t yet understand the long-term impacts that the virus may have on their health and wellbeing.

Understanding the complex mix of factors that impact our health

While the elderly and frail are most at risk from coronavirus, data from more than 2.5 millions US and UK users of the COVID Symptom Study app showed that people who were obese were much more likely to be hospitalised with COVID-19 and require respiratory support compared with people with a lower body mass index (BMI). 

In the US, just over 40 per cent of all adults are now classed as obese, rising to nearly half for non-hispanic black people. We also know that African Americans are also 60 per cent more likely to be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes than non-Hispanic white people, which is a condition also known to make people more vulnerable to coronavirus.

Social and economic deprivation, racial inequalities and the negative effects of systemic racism also influence these risks, with recent data showing that African Americans are dying from the disease at almost three times the rate of white people

Although the underlying reasons for this are a complex mix of social, economic and genetic factors, the food that we eat may be a common thread that ties some of these issues together. For example, there is a greater likelihood of black and ethnic minority folk living in ‘food deserts’ without easy access to healthy food and fresh produce.

Now is the time to reframe how we think about food

Obviously, the first thing we need to do is to control the spread of the virus through measures like social distancing, hand washing, and wearing a mask to protect others. After that, we must focus on improving everyones’ health to cope with both the short and long-term impacts of coronavirus.

However, we could also see this experience as a golden opportunity to think about what good nutrition and health looks like, not only to improve short-term health but also to support those recovering from coronavirus through healthier diets in the months and years to come.

We have recently shown that excessive blood sugar and fat spikes after meals can trigger an acute inflammatory response, along with other harmful responses. Repeated often enough, these can lead to weight gain and increased risk of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. This further strengthens the idea that what you eat each day can influence your health in many different ways.

Moving beyond a 'one-size-fits-all' approach

We also found that even identical twins, who share 100 per cent of their genes, can respond to the same foods in very different ways. This tells us that the future of nutrition must be based on an understanding of how each person’s body works, rather than a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, in order to move us all closer to our best health. We must focus on nourishment, helping people to find foods that taste good and are also good for their body. 

As we move forward from this pandemic, providing wider access to nutritious food, making fresh produce and healthy options cheaper and more convenient, and approaching nutrition with more personalized strategies should be at the top of the priority list.

COVID-19 has been a tragedy on a national and a global scale, and there’s no way for us to know exactly what comes next. Regardless, we must take this opportunity to do what we can to get healthy again, starting from the ground up.