The unsung tragedy of the pandemic: the American diet

Fast food put the U.S. on the fast track to a health emergency and COVID-19 was an unfortunate catalyst that strained the medical system.

Opinion by Isaac Dektor, News Editor

COVID-19 has a stranglehold on every facet of American society from politics to economics to day-to-day life, yet the solutions enacted have one massive blind spot: the American diet.

Mask mandates have no expiration in the foreseeable future. Vaccines are being mandated frequently in both public and private sectors. Stay-at-home orders have precedent when hospitals are reaching capacity. As the pandemic rages in its second year, the country must have a nutritional reckoning and prioritize the population’s health in order to attain a sense of normalcy.

Roughly a third of adults who were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 were overweight or obese according to the CDC. Obesity Reviews published a study that found obese people to be 113 percent more likely than people of healthy weight to be hospitalized, 74 percent more likely to be admitted to an ICU, and 48 percent more likely to die.

“A constellation of physiological and social factors drives those grim numbers,” writes Meredith Wadman in an article on “The biology of obesity includes impaired immunity, chronic inflammation, and blood that's prone to clot, all of which can worsen COVID-19. And because obesity is so stigmatized, people with obesity may avoid medical care.”

The obesity rate for adults in the United States was at 42.5 percent while 73.6 percent of adults were either overweight or obese during 2017-18 according to the CDC. Adults with a body mass index, which is a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of their height in meters, of 25-30 or 30 plus is considered overweight and obese, respectively.

Americans have not been healthy in a long time. Michael Moss begins his New York Times Magazine article titled “The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food” by chronicling an event in 1999 when representatives from the largest food companies in the country met at Pilsbury’s headquarters in Minneapolis to discuss what people were beginning to call the obesity epidemic.

Michael Mudd, the vice president of Kraft global corporate affairs at the time, presented a slide presentation that depicted obesity rates nearly doubling since that evening in the Pilsbury auditorium.

“There would be no getting around the role that packaged foods and drinks play in overconsumption,” wrote Moss, describing Mudd’s proposal. “They would have to pull back on their use of salt, sugar and fat, perhaps by imposing industry wide limits. But it wasn’t just a matter of these three ingredients; the schemes they used to advertise and market their products were critical, too.”

Moss goes on to explain a food industry term “bliss point,” which refers to the ratio of ingredients in a recipe that creates “the greatest amount of crave.”

Howard Muskowitz is a heavily credentialed food industry scientist who optimized products for a wide range of companies from PepsiCo to Campbell Soup.

“There’s no moral issue for me,” said Muskowitz in the article. “I did the best science I could. I was struggling to survive and didn’t have the luxury of being a moral creature. As a researcher, I was ahead of my time.”

Moss then characterizes the food industry's rigorous research into consumer preferences and how to get people to keep buying more of their products. This includes something called “vanishing caloric density,” which is the psychological tendency to overeat a food if it melts in your mouth.

According to the CDC, more than a third of adults consume fast food on any given day in the United States.

With obesity and other comorbidities being a factor in most COVID-19 hospitalizations, and the ubiquity of fast and junk food in American culture, the food industry has played a role in exacerbating the pandemic. Their impact on consumer health unfolded over the course of decades.

Many families approach Thanksgiving knowing that there will be an empty seat at the table, small businesses throughout the country are closing at an alarming rate and communities are palpably tense as the debate around vaccines polarizes the country. Lack of regard for the health and wellness of an entire country has a hefty price tag, and now the United States has paid the price.

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