COVID, Corn, and Cronies

We all know age is the largest risk factor for COVID mortality. Age weakens us against all diseases. But the discussion around underlying conditions has been vague and faded to the background. Their contribution to death is just as stark, and the root causes behind them portend more health crises ahead.

Take a look at New York’s fatality data. Where the patient's medical history is known, over 99% of those who died had at least one underlying condition. Italy’s statistics paint the same picture.

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Here’s the part we are uncomfortable talking about: virtually all these conditions are chronic diseases related to excess weight. Obesity is the unspoken health crisis of our time. We have passed epidemic proportions of obesity in the US, and the healthcare costs that come with it are genuinely bankrupting us.

In the simplest terms, we are eating ourselves to death. The COVID data backs it up. A BMI over 30 is associated with a 2.5 times great likelihood of being hospitalized. Over 35 and your chances of dying increase 12x! And racial differences? Well, mortality heterogeneity across racial cohorts correlates closely with differing rates of obesity and diabetes.

How did we get here?

It started in the 1970s when obesity trends in the US began exploding.

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We fear talking about these topics as body-shaming is an appropriately taboo subject in our current culture. But, the truth is this is not a question of personal shame; it is one of policy. Pure and simple.

Our food system is designed to provide super cheap commodity crops, namely corn, that are often transformed into sugary processed foods. Today, a full 60% of consumed calories come from these sugary processed foods. Our health reflects it, with almost ⅔ of Americans suffering one chronic condition and 40% suffering from two or more.

Two big things happened in the 1970s that got us on this path:

First, we went to war on saturated fat. The policy behind today’s food pyramid with grains at the base was born, and the low fat craze took off. We replaced nutritious proteins and fats with empty carbohydrates powered by pesticide protected mono-crops as the focus of our diets.

Second, agriculture policy went all-in on massive commodity crop production and exports. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz increased production subsidies of corn, encouraged production “fencerow to fencerow,” and the rise of the industrial farm was born. The result was a lot of cheap corn - and new products like corn syrup, to power the new diet.

We massively reduced the cost of low nutrition food, and we told the world it was good for you. Now we are paying the price.

The question is, how do we get out of it? While a few voices are calling for a massive reformation of the food system, the headwinds are immense. And they are bi-partisan. The forces pushing for the status quo are loud and powerful. From the corn lobby of Iowa (bi-partisan) to single-issue activists opposed to meat and fish like PETA and vegans on the left to big food corporate interests on the right, the status quo is entrenched, powerful and not going to accept change easily. Even the mainstream medical establishment after years of pushing an agenda of low-fat diets, low cholesterol, and universal statin use push the current agenda despite shifting evidence. In the meantime, our kids are getting fatter and sicker as even sugary cereals are marketed as heart-healthy. (Update: The AHA did stop endorsing the almost pure sugar cereals below but still does endorse high carb and sugar cereals like Cheerios and instant Oatmeal.)

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And the real, root problem goes unexamined. We talk endlessly about access to healthcare but refuse to address why we need so much of it.

But perhaps when the COVID post mortem is written and the facts emerge from the fog, it will be time to address this underlying epidemic that has been brewing for 50 years. There are politicians on both sides of the aisle waking up to the broken food system. Proposals exist to reduce the concentration of industrial farms through incentives to expand regenerative and organic methods. Thoughtful lobbying organizations like the Nutrition Coalition have been funded to educate for tangible policy change. And mainstream thinkers from Michael Pollan to Oprah Winfrey to Joe Rogan are raising awareness of the strong ties of diet to our health and food's power to both harm and heal. My partner and I launched Soilworks Natural Capital to do our part by investing in regenerative agriculture. Everyone can play an active role - buy real foods if you can afford them, demand change when you talk to your leaders, and stay informed so you can make better choices as things evolve. It might be too late to impact our COVID outcomes with food, but our health and fiscal stability will absolutely depend on getting it right going forward.