In the face of so much uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s tempting to search for answers that might help you regain some sense of control over your life. You might, for instance, find yourself reading the advice of self-appointed health “experts” and social media gurus, who love to make overblown and often blatantly inaccurate claims about using diet to avoid getting seriously ill from the novel coronavirus and spreading it to other people.
Their arguments can be summed up like this: A population full of strong bodies would effectively stanch the pandemic’s spread and hasten our return to normalcy. Also, eating the right food and fortifying one’s immune system (through vitamins, etc.) is enough to personally inoculate oneself from the worst effects of COVID-19.
As science, it’s garbage. Worse, emphasizing healthy eating above all else is a way of casting doubt on the necessity of masks, social distancing and, on occasion, the efficacy of vaccines.
This focus on diet is shared by alternative-health gurus, medical quacks, social media grifters, and at least one celebrity chef and former presidential candidate. These people often don’t deny Covid’s existence, or even its virulence. But they often imply that the climate of fear surrounding the pandemic is overblown and that mainstream authorities have deliberately ignored the issue of diet in their safety messaging. The true pandemic, they say, is America’s longstanding preponderance of diet-related disease, such as diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and obesity.
Perhaps you’ve seen these ideas echoed by friends on social media, where they tend to proliferate. Or maybe you’ve seen the misinformation emerge at its source: by various influencers or public figures who advance these claims online, often to audiences in the tens of thousands.
One particularly brazen tweet that was devoid of much context came from the UK’s Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist who cites dieting as something of a panacea in the fight against COVID.
As Nicola Guess—associate professor at the UK’s University of Westminster and Head of Nutrition at the Dasman Diabetes Institute—tells Lifehacker, diet is and has always been an important aspect of ensuring overall health. But there is zero evidence to support claims that eating healthier will protect one from contracting COVID or succumbing to its more serious effects.
She writes in an email:
Eating a healthy diet and…exercise is sensible as it protects us from a lot of diseases—in my view there is no evidence and no justification for pinning healthy eating on COVID-19 (unless you have something to sell). Is it worth trying to eat more healthy during a pandemic if there’s a chance it could protect you against severe infection? Sure, because there are no downsides to eating less sugar, junk food etc. Let’s just not pretend that it’s going to prevent someone from getting COVID-19 and even dying from it — there are 23-year-old slim athletes who have sadly died.
Eating healthy, exercising, and taking vitamins when needed are great ways to ensure your personal health in a general sense—this is knowledge backed up by over a century of scientific study. Still, it’s no substitute for a coherent public health policy involving traditional epidemiological tools in the midst of a raging pandemic. Here’s what you need to know about the culture of dietary zealotry and how you can spot it in its many forms.
COVID diet pseudoscience is a branch of regular diet pseudoscience
In recent years, dietary evangelists have accrued an increasing deal of clout in the public sphere. The craze has been spurred on by celebrities such as Gweneth Paltrow, whose wildly popular lifestyle brand Goop has touted raw food diets deemed potentially deadly by experts. Podcast host Joe Rogan has also helped amplify the dietary claptrap of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, who advocates a strictly carnivorous diet (both Peterson and his daughter, Mikhaila, claim a red meat diet cured their long standing bouts of depression).
Much of the dietary fundamentalism preaches different methods for boosting general immunity and thus warding off Covid. Paul Saladino, for example, a doctor based in Austin, Texas, recommends chowing down on organ meats and steak. The doctor T. Colin Campbell, on the contrary, is an advocate of whole food, plant-based dieting. He wrote this year: “I doubt there are many people who will be content with repeated masking, social distancing, and contact tracing when changing our diet could do so much more, while simultaneously protecting social norms, job security, and our economy.” UK celebrity doctor Aseem Malhotra, meanwhile, published a book promising a 21-day route to immunity through conscientious dieting that purports to “prevent, improve and even potentially reverse” the factors that can cause or worsen COVID-19.
Adherents of the trend aren’t always doctors. Australian celebrity chef Pete Evans was fined $25,000 by the country’s Therapeutic Goods Administration this year after making outlandish online claims about a device he invented called a “Biocharger.” Evans was charging $14,000 for the wellness platform, which he claimed was “programmed with a thousand different recipes and there’s a couple in there for the Wuhan coronavirus.” The idea seeps into the echo chambers of YouTube and Instagram, but isn’t confined to social media influencers: former Democratic presidential candidate Marianne Williamson joined in as well.
It’s just plain wrong
David Gorski, M.D., an oncologist and editor at Science-Based Medicine, says the notion that diet can prevent or treat illness is nothing new. “The idea that diet can somehow magically enhance the immune system so that we never (or almost never) get sick is a very old alternative medicine fantasy that takes a grain of truth and then vastly exaggerates it.”
This kind of dietary dogma is often devoid of the scientific nuance that pervades modern immunology, especially in light of COVID-19’s recent emergence and our evolving understanding of the virus.
Dr. David Robert Grimes, a cancer researcher, physicist, and author of The Irrational Ape, builds on that point, saying: “dietary zealots often make vague statements about protecting one’s immune system, but this is at best a truism and at worst mindless.” He explained to Lifehacker that this thinking “showcases a complete lack of understanding about immunology.”
According to Grimes:
Boosting your immune system is often the last thing you want to do; ask anyone with an allergy, being attacked by their own immune system, for example. During Spanish flu, young healthy people died disproportionately because their immune system over-reacted. Not only do diet evangelists give too much credit to diet’s ability to modulate immune response, they fail to understand any subtlety whatsoever with it.
It’s important to note that many of those who preach the dietary gospel are entrepreneurs or authors in their own right. Saladino peddles dietary supplements in addition to his book; an anonymous meat evangelist who goes by @KetoAurelius on Twitter sells beef liver strips along with a hyper-masculine mantra that lauds the supremacy of beef while casting doubt on the severity of the pandemic.
Nothing will make you impervious to a virus
The appeal of healthy eating makes sense as a tantalizing alternative to the uncertainty posed by government-mandated lockdowns, school closures, and the economic calamity wrought by COVID in the face of paltry fiscal stimulus from the federal government. After all, changing your diet is relatively easy, and wouldn’t it be great if all it takes is some moderate self-discipline to make a world of difference?
There is an alluring prospect here. It allows anyone who subscribes to this logic to believe they’re equipped with unspoken knowledge that the mainstream medical community is actively ignoring. According to Grimes, the notion “gives [people] a sense of power and well-being: they ‘know’ the causes and cures to disease, and thus they are effectively impervious to them. This sense of control is entirely illusory, but it often flatters the believer’s ego.”
But consciously, or not, there’s an implicit level of victim-blaming that necessarily comes with this kind of individualist approach—that whoever succumbs to COVID-19 must have been doing something wrong.
Gorski says “there’s a definite ‘blame the victim’ vibe to these claims. They imply that it’s the victim’s fault if he dies of COVID-19 because he didn’t ‘eat right” or “live right.’ Of course, that leaves out the fact that the biggest risk factors for severe COVID-19 are unalterable: being male and increasing age.”
Gorski points out that making individual dietary changes can, in fact, bode enormously positive results in terms of increasing overall metabolic health in the long term, but those lifestyle adjustments often take a huge amount of time.
He tells Lifehacker:
It’s possible that by becoming less obese or by partially reversing type II diabetes or heart disease with diet, weight loss, and exercise, one might decrease one’s risk of death from COVID-19, but that doesn’t help NOW. Such interventions take months to years, not days to weeks.
While you’re not going to be able to personally eradicate the spread of misinformation (that’s an ongoing job for tech companies), you can equip yourself with enough to recognize all of its hallmarks: it often offers a reductive, quick-fix approach to a multi-faceted dilemma, valorizes individual efforts to protect themselves, sells various lifestyle products, and traffics in inflammatory rhetoric about the current slate of tools used to keep people safe in a pandemic.