In March, Israel’s Innovation Authority called on high-tech companies to submit proposals for innovative ways to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. Israel is often at its best when it applies creative thinking to solving crises. But, innovative, edgy and entrepreneurial as we may be, our governing bodies need to appreciate that the fight for collective health begins with a decidedly low-tech approach: good nutrition.
New research in America suggests the obesity epidemic is making the coronavirus outbreak more dangerous — and potentially more deadly. "For younger and middle-aged adults in particular, carrying excess weight may significantly boost the likelihood of becoming severely ill with COVID-19."
While the obesity levels in Israel may not be as dire as in the U.S., we’re still not doing well. An OECD report last year noted that 50.9 percent of Israelis are overweight, with 27 percent being obese."
Since it appears that we are going to be fighting the coronavirus for at least many months to come, and as we watch Netflix, eat snacks, and pace back and forth in lockdown, we may also be coming to terms with the fact that we can’t do this forever, and many of us are likely to be infected with the virus. Therefore, it is critical to ask not only if it’s popcorn, Doritos or Bissli with tonight’s movie, but what effect your food choices could have on your overall health.
While it's clear that some healthy people do fare poorly, it’s also clear that there are important risk factors for severe complications and death from COVID-19 - not only obesity, but diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. We all want to increase our chances of surviving the virus, so the key question really comes down to this: If, like many Americans and Israelis, you suffer from one of these conditions, what can you can do to improve your health right away?
The answer might not be obvious, but the very fact that these four conditions have emerged together is a critical, and often overlooked clue. Thanks to the work of Stanford researcher Gerald Reaven in the 1980s, these conditions have long been linked together as the hallmarks of metabolic syndrome. Metabolic syndrome is now a widely-understood concept in modern medicine. It is essentially a condition in which our cells are no longer able to respond properly to hormonal signals that tell them to burn or store nutrients.
"Being overweight is almost always associated with metabolic syndrome," says Dr. Mariela Glandt, an endocrinologist in Tel Aviv who specializes in treating the disease. "But it’s not common knowledge that 25 percent of people we wouldn’t consider overweight still have metabolic syndrome."
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There are many different dietary approaches to improving health, but there is an enormous body of scientific literature which suggests that, for rapid improvement of metabolic syndrome, nothing works better than a low carbohydrate diet. The American Diabetes Association has recently taken crucial steps to recognize that low-carb nutrition has an important role in diabetes management, and Israel is gradually moving in the same direction.
"Israelis are waking up to the fact that consuming large amounts of carbohydrates leads to weight gain," says Dr. Glandt. "There are small changes, like giving up sugary drinks, that people can make right now that will improve metabolic health in a matter of weeks."
Unlike COVID-19, the symptoms of metabolic disease come on slowly, often over decades. "Metabolic syndrome is not a condition that just appears one day. It’s your body saying that it’s not coping well with the diet you’ve been eating. Now more than ever we should be listening to our bodies," says Dr. Glandt.
We are only just beginning to guess why metabolic syndrome allows the novel coronavirus to be so damaging. But we do know that metabolic syndrome leads to chronic inflammation, and that it impairs our immune response in myriad ways.
We know that sugar is not an essential nutrient (really!) and that, especially when combined with a sedentary lifestyle (isolation!), can worsen symptoms of metabolic syndrome. We know that on the whole, people with metabolic syndrome fare much worse from coronavirus than those without (the risk of death may be up to ten times greater).
We also know that "metabolic disease is completely modifiable with simple dietary changes," says Dr. Glandt. "One of the most important conclusions for our health and defense ministries should be to educate the public about the dangers of sugar consumption, at the very least."
Both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu like to use war imagery when they talk about coronavirus. If we are waging a war, then our bodies are the first line of defense. We should be preparing them for the battle.
Israel’s innovative spirit shined when it converted a missile production facility into a factory to produce ventilators. But it’s no less important to implement measures that improve our health now, so we need as few ventilators as possible, if and when.