General Health

Health Lessons from the Pandemic

The last year was an eye-opener when it comes to physical and mental health habits and what we’re putting in our bodies to fight off infection and create balance. Here are the 5 biggest health lessons from the pandemic.

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When the pandemic hit in 2020, it came with a message: Americans need to get healthier. It’s no secret, after all, that Americans’ weight is trending upward, that health conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease are on the rise, and that Americans aren’t eating healthy. So what lessons should you take away from the pandemic? Experts weigh in on five below.

Losing Weight Is More Important Than Ever

Obesity is associated with increased risk of numerous conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Now add increased risk of death from COVID-19. “We don’t know why, but it’s not unique to COVID,” says Vanita Rahman, M.D., clinic director of the Barnard Medical Center in Washington, D.C. Obesity is also associated with higher risk of death from seasonal flu. “There’s something about excess body weight that’s compromising the immune system or revving it up to a point that it becomes harmful.” She points to one study which found that among men aged 45 or older with obesity, risk of death from COVID-19 was 10 times greater, five times greater if they were between the ages of 40 to 45. “This highlights how important it is to maintain normal weight,” she adds.

More Plants and Less Meat Should Be Your New Mantra

If you weren’t already starting to reduce animal foods in your diet, this pandemic should serve as a wake-up call to do so. The biggest reason? COVID-19 was most likely introduced to humans through live markets. “If we didn’t have these live markets or consume animals, we would eliminate that risk,” Rahman says. Experts are warning that the next pandemic could be even worse if people don’t shift to plant-based diets. But that’s not the only reason to choose beans over beef. It’s also about your health. “Eating a whole-food, plant-based diet will help you maintain a healthy body weight and reduce your risk of comorbidity,” she says. Plus, by not eating animals, you’re not harming animals and not supporting slaughterhouses, which are breeding grounds for viruses, putting employees, their families and their communities at risk. And finally, eating plant-based is better for the environment. “Plants produce fewer greenhouse gases than animal food production,” Rahman says. Climate change, after all, can significantly impact health. For instance, the more air pollution, the more the risk of heart disease. COVID-related mortality is even higher with greater air pollution.

You Need to Stay Connected, No Matter What It Takes

When you physically isolate yourself from others as has been the case during the pandemic, you become more prone to feeling lonely, says Vivek Cherian, M.D., Baltimore-based internal medicine physician, who says his patients frequently tell him that being isolated from friends and family has been the most difficult part of the pandemic. There’s also strong evidence, especially in adults over the age of 50, that loneliness puts you at risk of premature death from all causes, including dementia, heart disease and stroke, and is associated with higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide. Yet as many people have discovered, you can still be together even if you can’t physically be together. Pick up the phone, arrange for a video call or go onto Facetime or other social media platforms with friends and family. With the right precautions in place, including distancing and using masks, you might even exercise outdoors with a friend. “The likelihood of transmission of COVID-19 while outdoors is significantly decreased compared to indoor environments,” he says.

The Best Restaurant Really Is Your Kitchen

When stay-at-home orders went into effect and many restaurants were shuttered or closed, individuals were forced to cook more at home, a positive move for health. “Eating at home is healthier than eating out,” Rahman says. Since the 1950s, restaurant portion sizes have increased almost fourfold, which has contributed to growing waistlines. Plus, the quality of restaurant food has diminished. In a recent study from the Journal of Nutrition, researchers found that only .1 percent of restaurant meals, whether fast food or full service, were of ideal quality. “The remaining 99.9 percent of restaurant meals tend to be higher in fat, added sugar and sodium,” Rahman says, adding that 25 percent of Americans’ sodium intake comes from restaurants. As many people learned, though, by cooking at home, you can drastically improve the nutritional benefits of your meals, and you can have fun doing it, too.

Controlling Your Blood Pressure Matters More Than You Think

Almost half of Americans have high blood pressure (defined as systolic blood pressure equal to or over 130 mm Hg or diastolic blood pressure equal to or over 80 mm Hg), per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While it’s linked to higher rates of strokes and heart disease, high blood pressure is also one of the four most common conditions among people hospitalized with COVID-19, according to a study from the Journal of the American Heart Association. The others include obesity, diabetes and heart failure. As with obesity, experts don’t understand the exact mechanisms behind this, but one thing is clear: There’s never been a better time to get that blood pressure under control, Rahman says. One way to do it? Eat a plant-only diet by following the Power Plate from the Physician Committee for Responsible Medicine. Start by dividing your plate into four quadrants, filling each with beans, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Eating like this can also aid the other three conditions, Rahman says.