You could wait around for a vaccine to protect you from COVID-19. Or you could use a weapon already here, close at hand, in your kitchen.

It is diet – but not just any diet. It is a low-carbohydrate diet.

That claim is extraordinarily controversial in scientific circles. Many doctors and dietitians will tell you flatly that it’s false. Yet there’s compelling evidence and logic behind it. Studies show that if you have specific, serious underlying conditions you are more likely to suffer badly or die from COVID-19 infection. Chief among these conditions are obesity, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease (CVD), in particular, hypertension (high blood pressure), heart attack and stroke. These all fall under the umbrella of metabolic syndrome, also known as “diseases of lifestyle”. Doctors define lifestyle diseases as “medical conditions or disorders resulting from lifestyle habits”. Diet is a major habit contributing to lifestyle disease.

Growing evidence shows that low-carb diets significantly reduce the symptoms of all these lifestyle diseases, or even put them into complete remission. Therefore, it makes sense for doctors to prescribe these diets for COVID-19 infection.

The latest authoritative voice for low-carb diets is Australian researcher Dr Maryanne Demasi in an editorial in the BMJ Evidence-Based Medicine. Demasi is an investigative medical journalist with a PhD in rheumatology. She is also Deputy Director of the Institute of Scientific Freedom. In her editorial title, Demasi asks: COVID-19 and metabolic syndrome: Could diet be the key?  She answers: “yes”.

Demasi doesn’t knock government-mandated social distancing and good hand hygiene. She doesn’t dispute benefits of masks. She simply says that governments pay “too little attention to the potential impact of diet on health outcomes”. The latest coronavirus (COVID-19) is clearly no exception.

Demasi gives evidence to show that poor diet is the biggest contributor to the global burden of chronic, lifestyle-related diseases.  And while COVID-19 infection and metabolic syndrome factors are multifactorial, a major driver of metabolic dysfunction is insulin resistance (IR). Demasi defines IR as an “impaired biological response” to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood glucose (sugar) levels.

She also gives evidence to show that dietary carbohydrate restriction is “safe and effective” to manage obesity and type 2 diabetes and reduce the need for drugs to control type 2 diabetes. And that compared to low-fat diets, low-carb diets are superior for achieving glucose (blood sugar) control and more effective at reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke in both the short- and long-term for people with type 2 diabetes.

Thus, if you really want to improve your chances of surviving COVID-19 infection, Demasi – and others – effectively argue that the evidence shows you should eat diets low in carbs and high in healthy fats (including saturated fat). In other words, LCHF (low-carb, high-healthy-fat) diets. Why then all the vigorous and vocal opposition – or “resistance”, as Demasi delicately puts it in her editorial – to LCHF diets?

After all, many doctors and scientists readily admit that there is much they don’t know about the virus and how best to treat anyone who has it. They have openly called COVID-19 an “unknown virus with multiple (and ugly) faces”. With all that they don’t know about it, it’s also true that doctors have been experimenting on patients. They’ve used powerful drugs with serious side effects off-label – without FDA approval as either safe or effective. All to save lives and prevent unnecessary suffering and death. That’s commendable, of course, but doesn’t explain all the antagonism to a diet that’s cheaper and safer than drugs that may or may not work for COVID-19.

In her editorial, Demasi puts a finger on a pulse of all that reluctance and resistance to LCHF diets. They flatly contradict official, high-carb, low-fat dietary guidelines in most Western countries. These guidelines recommend that carbohydrates make up between 45-65%  of total daily calories. They recommend reduced (low) fat, especially low-saturated-fat, diets. That’s despite evidence that low-fat diets can kill you – they may actually cause rather than prevent you from having a heart attack or stroke. The guidelines originated in the US in the late 1970s and remain hugely influential globally to this day. They are revised every five years. The latest revision, announced recently, hasn’t changed the guidelines much, if at all.

The Nutrition Coalition (TNC) website explains why in a press release last week. Those who drew up the guidelines have:

  • Excluded all the science – more than 65 clinical trials – on low-carb diets;
  • Ignored the last decade of science on saturated fats showing that these fats don’t affect cardiovascular or total mortality (death rates);
  •  Used a “black box” methodology that is not open or transparent about how they have evaluated or graded their data. Therefore, their research is not reproducible – still the hallmark of good science.

Yet most doctors and dieticians in Western countries will still doggedly prescribe official dietary guidelines to you for COVID-19. And in the US, the guidelines drive many programs included in the USDA’s feeding assistance division. Thus, the guidelines are arguably “the most powerful (influence) on America’s ideas about healthy eating”, as the TNC states.

It’s tempting to think that the guidelines are “industry-led”, as many experts claim; and that they result from undue influence of drug, food and soft-drink industries that have made – and still make – billions from high-carb, low-fat foods. In other words, the guidelines don’t have your interests at heart. They serve vested interests in these industries. That’s not an unreasonable thought. Global establishment support for the guidelines that continues during CODIV-19 endorses that thought.

In the UK, the industry-led British Dietetic Association (BDA) baldly states that there’s no specific food or supplement that can prevent you from “catching” COVID-19.  The BDA encourages everyone to eat a “healthy balanced diet to support the immune system”. By that, it means a “varied diet containing the five main food groups”. The country’s NHS (National Health Service) and Public Health England (PHE) call it the “EatWell Guide”.  British obesity researcher Dr Zoë Harcombe famously called it the “EatBadly Guide“.

In South Africa, the industry-led Association For Dietetics in Southern Africa (ADSA) put out a clarion call for the country to “address malnutrition in all its forms” during COVID-19. There was not even a nod to LCHF diets.

Harvard University’s TH Chan School of Public Health issued a press release in April, 2020  advising that you eat mainly plant foods – fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes – and nuts. And that you eat fish, dairy foods and poultry only “moderately” and limit red and processed meat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar.

Yet within all the COVID-19 doom and gloom, there have been glimmers of scientific light, as Demasi’s editorial spotlights.

In 2018, Diabetes Australia released a statement saying that there is “reliable evidence” that lower carb eating can be “safe and useful” to reduce blood glucose levels and body weight and manage heart disease risk factors, such as raised cholesterol and raised blood pressure (hypertension).

The American Diabetes Association in 2019 and Diabetes Canada in 2020 endorsed low-carb diets as “viable options” to improve blood sugar levels and reduce medications for those with type 2 diabetes;

In a recent initiative, the prestigious John Hopkins Hospital in the US announced sponsorship for a clinical trial, beginning September 1, 2020. It takes low-carb diets to their logical conclusion for COVID-19.

Researchers will test the hypothesis that a ketogenic (very-low-carb, very-high-healthy-fat) diet will improve the outcome for COVID-19 patients who have to undergo mechanical “ventilation” (assisted breathing). If it does, that will be huge because the evidence is growing to suggest that if you become infected and have to be “ventilated”, your chances of dying are higher.

Which brings us to Demasi’s editorial conclusions:  

Dietary carbohydrate restriction is “a simple and safe” way to improve blood sugar control rapidly.  Doctors can implement it alongside usual care in a medical or domestic setting.

She calls on governments and policy makers globally to adopt and endorse LCHF dietary advice for people with underlying metabolic syndrome. This will go a long way to “reduce the burden of pre-existing metabolic disease in those who contract COVID-19 now and in future”, Demasi says. Click here to read Dr Maryanne Demasi’s editorial in full.

In other words, it could save your life.

Marika Sboros is a South African investigative medical and health journalist, and founder and editor of FoodMed.net. She is also co-author with Professor Tim Noakes of “Lore of Nutrition, Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs” (Penguin 2017), updated and revised as “Real Food On Trial, How The Diet Dictators Tried To Destroy A Distinguished Scientist” (Columbus 2019).

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