Curious Cook: Food as medicine, finally


The pandemic has made people aware of proper nutrition; in particular, the nutrients which promote a good immune system against a coronavirus infection. Photo: 123rf.com

It is curious it needed a coronavirus pandemic to make everyone finally take food seriously. People were previously happy to ignore the burning of our rainforests, the pollution of our food with chemicals, the billions of tonnes of carbon chucked into our atmosphere, the over-use of antimicrobials in our meats, along with all the other unsustainable practices and dangerous shortcuts taken by our food production systems. It seems that our nutrition issues needed to become close-up and personal before long-term endemic issues with our food are taken soberly.

Before the pandemic, most people would be familiar with Hippocrates’ idea about what food is: “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” But not as many people were willing to change their diets then, unlike now where some 80% of people surveyed in UK supermarkets have adopted a “food and drink as medicine” mentality in their food shopping.

The pandemic has made people aware of proper nutrition; in particular, the nutrients which promote a good immune system against a coronavirus infection. People are now also less inclined to eat junk food due to a greater understanding of how cheap processed foods are produced. Sales of fresh foods promoted by healthy recipes are up 134% at a major supermarket chain last year, despite the extra cost and effort needed to prepare nutritious meals.

It appears the fear of catching Covid-19 has made many people finally recognise that health is really the best type of wealth to acquire. In this respect, a sturdy immune system would certainly help survival and recovery rates, and there are numerous articles about the best vitamins and minerals to help boost the immune system. However, there is also a danger if too much of these compounds and elements are ingested daily; therefore, please do not consider over-consuming nutritional supplements, and always take them with some fats/oils and water to aid absorption.

Tricky statistics

There are no reliable statistics about how people have been aided by healthy (or healthier) diets during the pandemic. This information is not recorded by any medical authority in any country. Hence assessing the impact of improved diets is very difficult with the available data.

For example, one might choose to assume that countries with an affinity for the healthy Mediterranean diet would have lower rates of deaths, but statistics indicate Southern European countries such as Spain, Italy, France, and Croatia have over 1,000 deaths per million of population (DPM). But other countries in the region such as Malta have 547 DPM, Greece have 531 DPM while Cyprus have 145 DPM.

Ignoring the style of diet does not make things easier, especially when looking purely at the lowest rates. Assuming the death data is correct (and available), the more impressive statistics come from Taiwan which recorded a DPM of 0.3, Singapore (DPM of 5), New Zealand (DPM of 5), Hong Kong (DPM 22), South Korea (DPM 25), Australia (DPM 35), Japan (DPM 36), with the most impressive being Macao with zero recorded Covid-19 deaths.

So other factors must therefore be involved other than just diet, probably including enforcement of lockdown measures, social distancing observance, types of housing, availability of medical facilities, advanced ages of populations in some countries, obesity, track and trace efficiency, lifestyles, etc.Making sense of the data (sort of)At this juncture, I wish to point out that the following is a subjective interpretation of available data and not necessarily quantifiable observations from any studies. Sometimes one has to offer a basic hypothesis which can help to illuminate the issue and provide other insights and ideas for future investigations. Hence, as an improved diet is the subject matter of this article, combining diet with other factors such as age, obesity, lockdown measures may offer a better insight into survivability from Covid-19.

Firstly, the countries likely to follow the Mediterranean diet also have aged populations. For example, Spain, Italy, France, and Croatia all have over 19% of population aged 65 or over. Age is known to diminish the efficiency of human immune systems and larger proportions of aged people in the population should statistically result in more deaths, which appears to be the case.

Age is a plausible explanation for the low death rates in the other countries mentioned, except for the curious case of Japan, which is the country with the highest percentage of people in the world aged 65 or over, at 28.2% of the population, and yet their DPM is only 36.

Hence, one would need to consider other factors for a possible explanation for the Japanese age anomaly, and I decided to review populations with a Body Mass Index (BMI) equal or greater than 25 which is the point which defines a person as being overweight, and national rates of diabetes, another commonly assumed risk factor of Covid-19.

Using BMI, we find that Spain, Italy, France, and Croatia all have populations where over 62% of the populations are overweight. By comparison, less than 30% of the Japanese are overweight. Also, the Japanese diet is generally recognised to be very healthy and since Japan published their dietary guidelines in 2005, mortality rate has also fallen by 15%. Hence, body weight may be a plausible factor especially as obesity is also generally linked with high blood pressure and inflammation.

Surprisingly, the link between Covid-19 mortality and diabetes is less clear cut, despite common health warnings about a connection. The incidence of diabetes in Japan is 5.6%, Italy 5% and France 4.8%. Among countries with low Covid-19 mortality rates, diabetes rates are also generally higher; eg, South Korea, where 6.9% of the population has diabetes, Australia 5.6%, Singapore 5.5%, etc.( Please note the above are generalised comments based on a simple analysis of publicly available data and is not an exhaustive medical investigation.)

Better health management

Regardless, the examined data does suggest switching to a healthy (or healthier) diet which also promotes some form of weight management is potentially beneficial, regardless of age. However, one common consequence of enforced lockdowns is people tend to eat and drink more. People are therefore more likely to put on weight, even if they are eating healthier foods, especially without taking additional exercise or increasing strenuous muscular activities. And excess weight does carry some statistical risk of Covid-19 mortality.

Several studies have suggested supplementing diets with some vitamin C, D and zinc may be beneficial to the immune system, and the UK now offers free vitamin D pills to people vulnerable to Covid-19. I take some zinc and vitamin D supplements due to the low levels of sunlight in my region. This earlier article offers some insights into such nutrients.

Eating better quality fresh food (especially food loaded with dietary fibres) is also very likely to improve the human gastrointestinal microbiota (HGM) residing in the gut, thereby strengthening the immune system further, along with any supplementary nutrients taken. An earlier article about the HGM can be found on https://www.thestar.com.my/lifestyle/food/2018/02/25/curious-cook-time-for-gut-feelings-part-2Links to other measures

It should be obvious poorly enforced lockdowns, half-hearted social distancing measures and other protection/sanitation deficiencies are extremely significant factors in Covid-19 contagion rates and deaths. In fact, the importance of such factors cannot be stressed enough, especially if one recognises people can only catch Covid-19 due to some form of contact with an infected person.

A recent study found that 100% of symptomatic Covid-19 patients suffer significant damage to their lungs, ranging from mild to extremely severe. And between 70% to 80% of people with Covid-19 who do not display any symptoms also suffer notable lung damage when examined under X-rays; the effects may not be apparent until later in life. Other organs, including the brain, liver and kidneys are also affected in varying degrees in both symptomatic and asymptomatic patients.

In the UK, sombre statistics show that within 140 days after discharge 12.3% of patients who have “recovered” from Covid-19 die, and 29.4% are back in hospital.

If vaccination and/or avoidance of contagion are impossible, variolation may be a feasible option to limit the peril of contracting severe Covid-19. This subject is discussed on here.

It is no guarantee against catching severe Covid-19 but it is possible a healthy immune system and variolation may be one of the few options left to some people in the future for surviving the current pandemic, especially in light of the new mutated variants of SARS-CoV-2 appearing around the world.

However, we are nowhere near that stage, so there is no need for alarm yet. For the present, keep safe and stay healthy until we know more about the vaccination outcomes. I genuinely hope the vaccination programs in many countries may alleviate the crisis over the course of this year.

In the meantime, keep enjoying your improved diets. And we should retain the habit of eating wholesome foods even after the end of the pandemic; proper dieting should not be a fad but a comfortable lifestyle.

As I mentioned before, Covid-19 may just be a mild “wake up” event – there are many other plausible, even more dangerous disasters (such as antimicrobial resistance, global warming, pollution/plasticisation of our environment, etc) which can affect the human race, all arising from the ways humans have abused our planet and resources.The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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