Why Aren't People More Worried About the Epidemic of Poor Diet?

Public Domain. Unsplash / Preankhan Gowrypalan

Dr. David Katz argues that poor nutrition is a greater threat than the coronavirus, but we think both are concerning.

Everyone is talking about the coronavirus, and how far it will spread in the coming weeks and months. People are nervous about being in public spaces and travelling abroad, and many are busy preparing their homes for a self-imposed quarantine that the CDC has said is "not so much a question of if this will happen anymore but rather more a question of exactly when." It's enough to spook anyone, even the most rational of thinkers.

Amid this frenzy, Dr. David L. Katz is offering an alternative perspective. The family physician and founder of Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center has just co-written a book with Mark Bittman called How to Eat, which he says "adds a lens of sense" to the conversation about diet and health in America, and he follows in a similar vein in an article for Heated, the food blog founded by Bittman. Titled "There's an epidemic that's a bigger threat than the coronavirus," Katz argues that, when we crunch the numbers, poor diet threatens far more of us than COVID-19 and should be a much bigger concern.

The current infection rate for COVID-19 is roughly 0.7 percent, based on the numbers we have right now. (Katz admits these can and likely will change.) The fatality rate is just under 4 percent of those infected, but that's assuming a person is young, healthy, and able-bodied; Katz's numbers do not take into account the increased risk to people with compromised immune systems, disabilities, and the elderly, for whom fatality rates are closer to 10 and 15 percent respectively. Katz argues that even if the infection rate is much higher than we realize, i.e. people have mild symptoms that aren't recognized as COVID-19, the fatality rate stays the same.

"[Let's say] we now have an infection rate of (800/2000), or a very alarming 40 percent. But we now also have a fatality rate of only (8/800), or 1 percent. If we repeat the prior calculation for your personal risk of getting the virus and dying from it, we have: {(800/2000) X (8/800)}, or... the exact same 0.4 percent as before."

Meanwhile, poor diet is linked to one in six deaths in the U.S. annually, causing around 500,000 premature deaths per year. Katz writes, "That is more than ten times worse than a fairly bad strain of influenza, monumentally worse than coronavirus thus far, and happens every year... The exposure risk for diet is 100 percent; everyone eats. So for coronavirus to rival diet, every last one of us would need to be exposed." (It's a powerful point, but his influenza numbers are challenged by an article in the Guardian that says the seasonal flu kills between 290,000 and 650,000 people globally, putting it more on par with diet-related deaths, and that another estimate of COVID-19's fatality rate at 1 percent makes it 10 times deadlier than the seasonal flu.)

Obviously a poor diet does not kill as rapidly as the coronavirus does, but Katz maintains we should be giving the virus "far less preferential respect" and focusing more on the aspects of our lifestyle that are statistically more likely to cause us harm. Even when a poor diet does not kill, it compromises quality of life significantly and is linked to pre-diabetes, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, obesity and overweight, not to mention neurocognitive impairments, even in the short-term.

I find Katz's comparison to be intriguing, as it lends some much-needed perspective to just how big a problem poor diet is in our lives and how easy it is to forget about it on a daily basis, but I do not share his dismissive approach to COVID-19. We don't yet know what we're dealing with here in the U.S. and Canada, and many of the traditional agencies and experts in charge of handling a health crisis like this are no longer in positions of power, due to cuts by the current administration. As my editor explained, "COVID-19 is an essential test of and learning moment for our readiness to handle a pandemic, even if this one doesn’t feel as alarming as ebola or the plague. " So it is nothing to scoff at, but neither is the epidemic of poor dietary health. They just don't need to be compared so closely, as they are false equivalencies.

By all means, keep your eye on the spreading coronavirus and do what you need to be ready. But also take this opportunity to examine how your eating habits could also be threatening your long-term health, and what you can do to fix that. If you care about your health, you'll be doing both.