In the first DGA published during a global pandemic, you’d think COVID-19 would get some airtime. Unfortunately, it only got one sentence. I know most of us are ready to see coronavirus in our rear view mirrors, but it’s not history (yet).
The past 10 months have shown us scientific discoveries in real-time, linking preventable nutrition issues (e.g., vitamin D deficiency) with COVID-19. And considering immunity is a top priority, I think it’s a miss the Dietary Guidelines did not take the opportunity to inform Americans of the links between nutrition and immune function. The singular mention in the DGA explains that, “people living with diet-related chronic conditions and diseases are at an increased risk of severe illness from the novel coronavirus.”
I appreciate, however, that the DGAC (remember, they wrote the 835-page Scientific Report to inform the much shorter DGA) adds more color to the issue, calling out two, concurrent epidemics in our country: “These parallel epidemics, one noninfectious (obesity and diet-related chronic diseases) and one infectious (COVID-19), appear to be synergistic.”
Schneeman explains the committee faced a logistical, timing challenge: “The COVID-19 pandemic emerged as the committee moved into its final phases of work.” She went on to say that, “As a committee, we were struck with the vulnerability of those with diet-related chronic diseases (e.g., obesity, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease) to the most serious outcomes from infection with the virus. In addition, the disruptions due to the pandemic have resulted in food insecurity and hunger, increasing the challenges to make healthful dietary choices.”
DGAC member Regan Bailey, Ph.D., M.P.H., R.D., echoes this paradox, sharing that while “nutrition is critical to the immune defense and resistance to pathogens, both undernutrition and overnutrition can impair immune function.” (Bailey is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition Science at Purdue University, as well as Director of the Purdue Diet Assessment Center.)
At mindbodygreen, we recently explored undernutrition in the complex problem of food insecurity, as well as overnutrition (and unhealthy nutrition patterns) in the synergy between metabolic health and immunity.
Based on these insights, I believe embracing healthful nutrition patterns, supporting food security initiatives, addressing nutrient gaps, and maximizing other lifestyle factors (e.g., physical activity, sleep, etc.) are powerful levers we can choose to pull to improve metabolic health, and thus our immune system.
Indeed, DGAC member Linda Van Horn, Ph.D., R.D.N., L.D., Professor of Preventive Medicine at Northwestern University, and Chief of the Nutrition Division at Feinberg School of Medicine, underscores the fact that, “now more than ever, the importance of healthy eating, weight control, and prevention of both cardiometabolic and infectious diseases is a recognized goal, worldwide.”
Ultimately, diving deeper into the nutrition/immune system relationship in the Dietary Guidelines was passed onto the next iteration (2025-2030). In the meantime, Donovan shares these actionable insights: “a healthy immune system depends upon an adequate intake of many nutrients, protein, long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids (especially omega-3s), vitamins (e.g., vitamin C and the fat-soluble vitamins A, D and E), and minerals (e.g., iron and zinc).”
In addition to these macro- and micronutrients, Donovan explains that, “the best place to get immune-supporting nutrients is from whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, which provide dietary fiber and phytonutrients that benefit the gut microbiome and immune function.”