SARS-CoV-2 / COVID-19 and diet
Updated - 04 Jan 21
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed several chronic human health issues directly attributable to the modern plant-heavy diet. In fact, all the co-morbidities that represent increased risk factors for severe illness or death from COVID-19 are directly linked to diet, specifically the effect of toxins and inflammatory chemicals found almost exclusively in plant ‘foods’.
Clinical evidence now indicates that metabolic diseases/conditions such as diabetes, pre-diabetes, obesity, hypertension and cardiovascular disease all increase risk of hospitalization or death with COVID-19 by a factor of 10 or greater.
Dr Ken Berry, author of ‘Lies my Doctor told me; Medical Myths that can Harm your Health.’, explains that cell membranes in the body use lipids (fatty acids) as structural components. Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) from industrial seed oils such as canola, corn, sunflower, safflower, etc result in cell membrane weaknesses that viruses like COVID-19 can exploit. As he says, inferior fats results in inferior cell membranes.
Dr Cate Shanahan, author of ‘Deep Nutrition; Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food.’ and ‘The Fatburn Fix; Boost Energy, End Hunger and Lose Weight by Using Body Fat for Fuel.’ explains another problem with PUFAs. PUFAs are unstable and cannot be burned reliably by cell mitochondria to produce energy. If one’s body fat consists of too high a percentage of PUFAs, resulting from a diet including plant seed oils, then attempts to burn body fat can cause the cell’s energy production system to shut down. Unable to burn PUFAs for energy, the cell mitochondria signals the body to provide it’s emergency fuel, glucose, prompting the liver to produce glucose. The liver obliges, the pancreas detects an increase in blood sugar and produces insulin to moderate it. The brain, with a direct neurological link to the liver responds with demands for more sugar and a cycle resulting in insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes ramps up.
It is the inclusion of industrial seed oils, until 1900 used as steam engine lubricants, battleship propeller shaft lubricants and lamp oils, in the modern diet that has driven the explosion of chronic disease in the western world. Type 2 diabetes was vanishingly rare before the 1930s and, aside from congenital heart defects, cardiovascular disease was unheard of before the 1920s. As of 2019, 40% of Americans were obese, 60% overweight and only 12% were metabolically healthy. That means that 88% of Americans have underlying co-morbidities that increase their vulnerability to viral or bacterial infections.
This has all been added to a much older problem, autoimmune disease or ‘the diseases of civilisation’. These diseases are characterised by the immune system attacking healthy tissue, confusing it with foreign material or pathogens. The primary triggers of these autoimmune responses are proteins and other bio-toxins found in plants. A condition known as ‘leaky gut’ or ‘intestinal permeability’ inhibits the digestive tract’s ability to keep non-nutrients out of the blood stream. When they enter the blood stream the immune system detects them as foreign particles and creates antibodies to destroy them. When these antibodies also attack similar structures in healthy tissue, inflammatory autoimmune disease is the result. Over 80 autoimmune diseases have been identified with Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, Thyroid Disease, Psoriasis, Inflammatory Bowel Disease, Celiac Sprue and Multiple Sclerosis being examples.
Only a few thousand years ago humans began the Neolithic revolution, having been Paleolithic hunter gatherers for most of human history. The Neolithic brought about the domestication of animals but also, in one of the greatest tragedies of human and ecological history, the domestication of plants and the birth of arable farming. Aside from the widespread destruction of natural ecosystems, Neolithic agriculture is the source of the dietary toxins at the root of most human disease.
120 years ago, COVID-19 would have had a much lower impact on human health. Human cell structure and metabolic health had yet to be dealt it’s most serious blow by the PUFAs found in industrial seed oils. We’d not yet learned to fry potato chips in battleship propeller shaft lubricant.
15,000 years ago, COVID-19 would have had an even smaller effect on human health. The seed oils, grains, legumes and vegetables behind inflammatory autoimmune disease had not yet been invented (yes, invented). What few plant products humans ate in the Paleolithic era were low in toxins, seasonally limited and low in digestible carbohydrate. Plants were primarily an emergency food to be consumed during periods of scarcity when high nutrient density ‘real’ food was not available.
It is worth adding a special mention of Vitamin D here. Vitamin D is a very effective indicator of basic immune system health. Very few people with a blood vitamin D level of >30 ng/mL have died from COVID-19. There is no record of any COVID-19 deaths among those with a vitamin D level >40 ng/mL.
This is important because the ‘natural’ level of vitamin D in humans sits in the 45-55 ng/mL range. Tests among rural populations in latitudes appropriate to their skin tone reveals this to be the ‘normal’ range for healthy humans. The Maasai in Kenya, ranchers in Alberta and Scandinavian trappers in Sweden all tend toward this range of natural vitamin D levels. Even among the elderly in Japan, where the cultural emphasis on traditional diet, outdoor living and health remain strong, vitamin D levels below 30 ng/mL are rare.
However, among urban and housebound demographics, the story is much worse. In elderly people in Northern Italy, heavily impacted by COVID-19, vitamin D levels as low as 5 ng/mL were not uncommon and average levels of 12-13 ng/mL were recorded. For perspective, levels below 12 ng/mL are associated with rickets in children and represents a severe deficiency in vitamin D. In other urban populations, even among ‘healthy’ younger adults, levels below 30 ng/mL are common.
The reasons for these vitamin D deficiencies can be broken into two main threads; metabolic health and lifestyle.
Metabolic health. The human body burns saturated fats very efficiently and these would have provided the majority of calories to ancestral people. These fats would have been accompanied by considerable amounts of protein, giving the body appropriate satiety signals and preventing overeating.
We can also metabolize carbohydrates effectively, although carbohydrate rich foods tend to be nutrient poor, making them poor options for long term health. For whole foods in this category, fruits, tubers, root vegetables, etc, seasonality and the lack of refining limited the negative effects of overconsumption of carbohydrates.
Modern processed foods contain large amounts of processed carbohydrates, made hyper palatable through exploiting chemical flavourings (natural and synthetic) engineered to short-circuit the body's natural satiety mechanisms. Baked potato, for instance, eaten plain is hard to overeat. It is simply not that palatable so once immediate hunger pangs are addressed, the motivation to eat it disappears. However, if flavoured with butter and a few spices, it becomes much more palatable and over-eating becomes more likely. If, instead of baking, it is sliced thinly, deep fried and then spiced with a range of flavour profiles that make it hyper palatable, it is easy to overconsume calories.
In all cases, the potato lacks essential nutrients, but the over-consumption of the carbohydrates compounds the nutritional deficiency by creating an energy excess in the body, beginning the march toward metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, heart disease, etc. In the modern diet, hyper-processed carbohydrates and sugar have made calorific overconsumption the norm, rather than the exception and rates of metabolic disease reflect this.
Modern processed foods also contain unnaturally high levels of PUFA, often over 50% of the fatty acids in seed oils. Prior to 1910 and the invention of processed seed oils, the dietary consumption of PUFA was <2.5% of total calories. PUFA are not efficiently burned by metabolic processes, so their concentration in modern foods is a major contributor to metabolic syndrome, metabolic diseases and associated inflammation. As a key anti-inflammatory compound in the body, this disfunction increases the body’s consumption of vitamin D.
Replacing high PUFA cooking oils with natural cooking fats (tallow, pasture raised lard or, for those tolerant to dairy, butter) can help re-stabilize metabolic function and improve metabolic health. Improvements in metabolic health reduces inflammation and frees up vitamin D and, therefore, vitamin D levels naturally improve.
Lifestyle. Natural vitamin D production occurs when the skin is exposed to sunlight and cholesterol is converted into vitamin D. Healthy rural populations who engage in a historically natural outdoor lifestyle produce more vitamin D as consumption of animal fats, combined with regular exposure to sunlight, maximises vitamin D production.
In summary, vitamin D is essential for good immune function. Dietary improvements in metabolic health, plus lifestyle changes, can improve vitamin D levels over time. In the short term, supplementing with a good vitamin D source can boost the immune system very quickly.