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The link between ultra processed foods and COVID-19

Processed and ultra processed foods and COVID-19 make for bad combinations in regard to the disease's impact on the overweight and those already...

Processed and ultra processed foods and COVID-19 make for bad combinations in regard to the disease’s impact on the overweight and those already suffering inflammation

The more that we are learning about the COVID-19 virus and how it behaves, the more we are also beginning to understand which populations are the most vulnerable — especially those with poor diets who consume ultra processed foods. According to the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), those groups that are most vulnerable include:

  • Seniors ages 65 years and older
  • Patients in nursing homes or long-term care facilities
  • Patients with underlying medical conditions, such as chronic lung disease or serious heart conditions
  • Patients who are immunocompromised, such as from cancer treatment, bone marrow or organ transplantation, or HIV/AIDS
  • Patients with diabetes, liver disease, or chronic kidney disease requiring dialysis
  • Patients who are morbidly obese1

However, research has also shown that certain other factors may increase the risk for development of COVID-19. In particular, a diet high in ultra processed foods can lead to chronic inflammation, which is implicated in a number of medical conditions known to increase the risk for developing COVID-19. Read below to discover more about this link between ultra processed foods and COVID-19.

Chronic inflammation

The link between chronic inflammation and a number of serious health conditions, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure, is well established. Chronic inflammation occurs when the body mistakenly thinks that it is fighting off a pathogen, so releases white blood cells that eventually start attacking the organs.

Furthermore, such a diet may even increase the risk of dying at an earlier age. A 2019 article in the British Journal of Medicine stated that four servings of processed food could increase the risk of premature death by as much as 62 %.2 Therefore, it is not too far a stretch to see how a diet high in processed or ultra processed foods may increase the chances of developing COVID-19.

Processed food and obesity

In addition to the link between processed food and inflammation in the body, there is an equally strong link established between processed food and obesity. In fact, only 12.2% of American adults are considered metabolically healthy.3

Of course, given the ready availability of processed and ultra processed foods, it is one of the major causes for obesity. In fact, a rapid research letter, published this April in Clinical Infectious Diseases, found that not only was obesity a major risk factor for serious cases of COVID-19 that could result in hospitalization, but that it was happening to younger patients.4 One reason for the connection between obesity and COVID-19 may be that excess abdominal fat may place excess pressure on the lungs, making it difficult for patients to breathe, requiring use of a ventilator.

Processed food, poverty and food deserts

According to the US Department of Agriculture, food deserts are “areas where people have limited access to a variety of healthy and affordable food.” 5 Recent research shows that urban food deserts are often in high-density, low-income areas, in which residents often suffer from health issues that put them at greater risk for contracting COVID-19.

Fast-food restaurants and convenience stores often take the place of healthy food options, at a significantly higher cost than supermarkets and to the detriment of overall health. Furthermore, there is often limited transportation and storage at home for perishable goods, should residents travel out of their area to a supermarket.5,6

A recent article in CNN discussed how residents in food deserts may be even more adversely affected as a result of the economic crisis due to the current pandemic.6

As a general rule, you should be guiding your patients away from processed foods, toward healthier choices. Given the link between severe COVID-19 and processed food, it is clear that keeping your patients on a wellness diet is even more important than ever.


  1. Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-2019): People Who Are at Higher Risk for Severe Illness. National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases (NCIRD), Division of Viral Diseases. Reviewed May 14, 2020. Accessed June 20, 2020.
  2. Rico-Campà A, Martínez-González MA, Alvarez-Alvarez I, et al. Association between consumption of ultra-processed foods and all cause mortality: SUN prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2019;365:l1949.
  3. Araújo J, Cai J, Stevens J. Prevalence of optimal metabolic health in American adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2009–2016. Metabolic Syndrome and Related Disorders. 2019;17(1):46-52.
  4. Lighter J, Phillips M, Hochman S, et al. Obesity in patients younger than 60 years is a risk factor for Covid-19 hospital admission [published online ahead of print, 2020 Apr 9]. Clinical Infectious Diseases. 2020;ciaa415.
  5. Dutko P, Ver Ploeg M, Farrigan T. Characteristics and Influential Factors of Food Deserts. ERR-140, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service. August 2012.
  6. Groceries were hard to find for millions. Now it’s getting even worse. June 9, 2020.

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