The Pandemic as a Wake-Up Call for Personal Health

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As Mr. Vilsack said, “The time has come for us to transform the food system in this country in an accelerated way.”

Early in the pandemic, when most businesses and entertainment venues were forced to close, toilet paper was not the only commodity stripped from market shelves. The country was suddenly faced with a shortage of flour and yeast as millions of Americans “stuck” at home went on a baking frenzy. While I understood their need to relieve stress, feel productive and perhaps help others less able or so inclined, bread, muffins and cookies were not the most wholesome products that might have emerged from pandemic kitchens.

When calorie-rich foods and snacks are in the home, they can be hard to resist when there’s little else to prompt the release of pleasure-enhancing brain chemicals. To no one’s great surprise, smoking rates also rose during the pandemic, introducing yet another risk to Covid susceptibility.

And there’s been a run on alcoholic beverages. National sales of alcohol during one week in March 2020 were 54 percent higher than the comparable week the year before. The Harris Poll corroborated that nearly one adult in four drank more alcohol than usual to cope with pandemic-related stress. Not only is alcohol a source of nutritionally empty calories, its wanton consumption can result in reckless behavior that further raises susceptibility to Covid.

Well before the pandemic prompted a rise in calorie consumption, Americans were eating significantly more calories each day than they realized, thanks in large part to the ready availability of ultra-processed foods, especially those that tease, “you can’t eat just one.” (Example: Corn on the cob is unprocessed, canned corn is minimally processed, but Doritos are ultra-processed).

In a brief but carefully designed diet study, Kevin D. Hall and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health surreptitiously gave 20 adults diets that were rich in either ultra-processed foods or unprocessed foods matched for calorie, sugar, fat, sodium, fiber and protein content. Told to eat as much as they wanted, the unsuspecting participants consumed 500 calories a day more on the ultra-processed diet.

If you’ve been reading my column for years, you already know that I’m not a fanatic when it comes to food. I have many containers of ice cream in my freezer; cookies, crackers and even chips in my cupboard; and I enjoy a burger now and then. But my daily diet is based primarily on vegetables, with fish, beans and nonfat milk my main sources of protein. My consumption of snacks and ice cream is portion-controlled and, along with daily exercise, has enabled me to remain weight-stable despite yearlong pandemic stress and occasional despair.

As Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says, “This is not rocket science.” She does not preach deprivation, only moderation (except perhaps for a total ban on soda). “We need a national policy aimed at preventing obesity,” she told me, “a national campaign to help all Americans get healthier.”