As if America were not already struggling enough, over forty percent of American adults were obese as of late 2019, reports the NCHS, and by 2030, almost half of all Americans could suffer from obesity. Though the COVID-19 pandemic currently overshadows the obesity epidemic, the link between the two has become increasingly important.
Recent studies with COVID-19 patients in New York found that those suffering from obesity were twice as likely to be hospitalized. Despite this strong link, the obesity epidemic may still seem abstract within the confines of a college campus. The active lives of many students, abundant resources for recreation, and exposure to diverse food options create a bubble in which many of us live. The high obesity rates mentioned above disproportionately affect Americans with middle to lower incomes, people of color, and many who have no college education.
The convergence of these two severe health crises sheds light on an uncertain future for health and food norms in America, as extended quarantine and work-from-home have shifted several of them.
One of the most significant shifts has been more reliance on home cooking. In fact, 45% of Americans have been cooking more in the past three months than before. Earlier in the year, Americans ate a third of their meals outside of their homes–– whether it be consuming fast food, dining at restaurants with enormous portion sizes, or relying on food delivery at the touch of a button. This new trend has the potential to create better eating habits, says esteemed Dietician Cara Rosenbloom. Her clients have reported greater intake of fruits and vegetables, fewer fad diets, and overall improvements in their mood when cooking more.
Another shift, says Hajra Jaffer, my mother and a health and well-being coach at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, is towards eating habits that incorporate “whole” foods. These are plant-based, unprocessed foods, like colorful vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and healthy fats. They contain nutrients that are essential to adopting sustainable eating habits, she adds.
My mother’s insight on sustainable eating has not only been relevant to her clients over the past few months but also to a few members of my household. My sister, a 24-year-old professional, chose to dedicate a month to eating only whole foods as a part of the Whole30 Program. She cut out carbs, added sugars, dairy, legumes, and alcohol during this time. One of her main takeaways from this challenging commitment was her “awareness of how much food in America contains additives.” When substituting fresh fruit for a scoop of ice cream, she began to realize how her “mind and body reacted positively to the healthy substitute.”
My father also modified his diet a few months after recovering from COVID-19. He began experiencing allergic reactions to eating certain foods and, after consulting health professionals who had no concrete answers, he decided to follow a diet of whole foods and fewer fatty proteins, desserts, and processed snacks and drinks. He is now feeling better than ever with the various light chicken dishes, roasted vegetables, and salads that my mother prepares everyday.
My family is just one example among many that give hope for change, not only during this unprecedented time, but in the long-term.
While it may not directly impact many people in affluent and privileged areas, obesity prevalence is a persistent issue and a product of inadequate policy, education, and investment in countless communities around the U.S. People experiencing food insecurity and living in food deserts have barriers to accessing whole foods that are nutritious with the primary options being “low cost, energy dense processed foods,” a recent New England Journal of Medicine article states. Some of these communities have been hit even harder by the economic impacts of COVID-19, as families have experienced higher rates of food insecurity in April than prior months. Thus, obesity disproportionately impacts Black, Latinx, and Native American communities that struggle with food insecurity, and COVID-19 is only making it worse.
The most vulnerable age group in these communities tends to be children, as countless studies from the NIH have also concluded that childhood obesity is a significant predictor of adult obesity and chronic disease down the line.
Public and private entities can continue tackling the obesity epidemic by improving the current food programs already in place and emphasizing the power of whole foods in these communities. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a leading health-focused philanthropic organization, suggests that policymakers continue to increase funding and eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which provides a stimulus for lower-income families to purchase healthy foods. SNAP compliments the meal programs that American public schools must continue to provide to children for lunch during the school year. Additionally, governments could incentivize companies to partner with community dining entities and offer meal kits with whole foods to eligible employees.
It is important to also recognize that exercise and physical activity go hand in hand with eating whole foods as factors that influence the prevalence of obesity in various communities. Communities with more public transportation, parks, bike lanes, and recreation spaces have weaker ties with obesity prevalence, according to Harvard Public Health. People today spend more time in their homes due to COVID-19, often unable to go outside or to the gym to exercise. Eating habits may take time to change, but if a greater number of Americans are physically active during the summer months, such behaviors could have a positive influence on other efforts to prevent further increases in obesity.
There is a long way to go, but progress is only possible if those with the knowledge and resources can get the attention of leaders with adequate influence. There may be no better time than now for our society to treat this issue with more urgency.