Vaccinate—but also, focus on nutrition

It’s time to admit that nutrition can play a powerful role in the fight against COVID-19.

Todd Runestad, Content Director,, Sr. Supplements Editor

April 26, 2021

8 Min Read
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It’s been a year since the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) roared into the world, affecting humans everywhere with the COVID-19 disease. Amid the awful death and dislocation from COVID-19, we have learned much.

We have learned about disease progression—and survival.

We surely have learned to pivot our businesses, how to Zoom and how much we dearly love personal interaction. With vaccines rolling out, hugging the world is tantalizingly close.

But the biggest lesson of all is staring us in the face—if we have the wisdom to see it, the courage to speak it.

Among the key COVID learnings is that the underlying health state of people matters. Those with underlying comorbidities—ranging from obesity and diabetes to cardiovascular conditions like hypertension—all seem to suffer worse outcomes.

What those big three conditions all have in common is they all have roots in dietary intake.

That is to say, nutrition matters.

“Could the pandemic be a massive global litmus test that reveals how truly sick the human race is?” said Tim Avila, founder and president of Systems Bioscience, a consultancy that applies systems biology to consumer goods and services companies in the nutrition world. “I’m dead serious. We are generally deficient in DHA, bifidos, in vitamin D. You can make the case for zinc and others. It’s revealing just how nutrition-poor we all are. It’s crazy.

Related:What can retailers say about how vitamin D works against COVID-19?

“Before you vaccinate, why not nutritionate?”

There’s the rub that every natural products retailer understands in her bones.

Even consumers across America understand it on some level—witness that surge in sales of supplements, the spike in sales of immunity-supporting products.

Poor diet and nutrient deficiencies lead to death

In general, we all know that nutrition matters.

Rockstar nutritionist Mark Hyman, M.D., a New York Times bestselling author and chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, recently posted about the currently grim reality.

“Poor diet is responsible for almost 700,000 deaths in the U.S. each year—and 11 million worldwide,” wrote Hyman. “And the average American consumes 55 pounds of added sugar each year, which we know is a major contributor toward the diabesity epidemic.”

Nutrition researchers knew it even at the outset of COVID-19. In May of 2020, researchers published a paper concluding that, even absent any sort of cure for COVID-19, "it is clear that nutritional status plays a significant role in patient outcomes." 

They noted that, in addition to the social isolation and mitigation measures undertaken by societies around the world, "special attention" should be given to maintaining a healthy immune system, maintaining a healthy diet, lifestyle, exercise regime and minimal stress. 

Related:COVID-19 vaccines pose a challenge for supplement industry

They also noted that, particularly among elderly populations, there is a well-known deficiency in micronutrients such as calcium, vitamin C, vitamin D, folate and zinc—and special attention should also be paid to vitamin A, selenium and various probiotics and nutraceuticals such as glutathione and N-acetyl-cysteine. 

But it’s more than that even.

With COVID-19, we have close to 600,000 dead in the U.S. and 3 million worldwide.

Shouldn’t we be sounding the alarm for poor diet’s role in death, dislocation and heartache?

Dr. Dennis Godby certainly thinks so. He's a California naturopath who is doing an 11,000-mile walk across America to raise awareness about the need for vitamin D, exercise, plant-rich diets and more. Ten years ago Godby ran across the country to promote naturopathic licensure. 

His current project is motivated by the realization that most people who die of COVID had pre-existing chronic diseases preventable via the aforementioned lifestyle shifts. 

Another curious aspect of COVID-19 is the apparent racial disparity with the disease. That is, Black and Latinx people tend to fare worse than white people.

But is it really about skin color, or is it the melanin-induced difference in how we uptake the sunshine vitamin? Not coincidentally, an incredible 82% of Blacks are deficient in vitamin D. So are 63% of Latinx. Compare that to a relatively paltry (yet still significant) 31% of whites.

Can vitamin D deficiency also be considered a COVID-19 co-morbidity? It appears so.

Vitamin D could be so important that the wintertime should not so much be considered the “cold and flu season” so much as the “vitamin D deficiency season.”

And vitamin D has been found to be the most important nutraceutical in preventing, curing and treating aspects of COVID-19.

(To be sure, other variables are at work. One online study found minority populations tended to live in greater poverty with limited access to social services, and were more likely to have underlying medical conditions—comorbidities—that make them more vulnerable. Another online survey found Blacks and Latinx were less likely to correctly answer 14 COVID-19 knowledge questions compared to Asian and white Americans, which could also play a role in disease prevention. All these things might matter, but we’re not epidemiologists here, we’re nutritionists!)  

And we can’t underestimate the undeniable power of positive nutrition on a person’s health and wellness—and how that can contribute to a resilience that can strengthen one’s constitution and lead to better outcomes as it relates to COVID-19.

“Everyone is talking about risk factors. Insulin resistance. Hyperlipidemia has compelling impact on immune regulation. Jeff Bland talks about aging and senescence and immunity. Are there 100 factors at play? There’s probably more than that. This is inside Bill Gates’ brain. How many variables can you hold in your head at the same time?” said Avila. “The framework is three areas of poor nutrition—macro, micro and phyto. There’s research lines in all three of those. The king of micro may be vitamin D based on sheer data from a randomized controlled studies standpoint. There is abundant meta-analysis in the literature already.”

Nutritional supplements ingredients can help facilitate a strong immune system

In April 2020—one year ago, and when COVID-19 was first sending shock waves throughout the world—market consultant giant Accenture issued a report saying that even then, one of the top four consumer health and wellness trends was nutraceuticals. 

“The global pandemic,” concluded the report, “has created a huge surge in demand for everything wellness as consumers look to boost immune systems and improve overall physical and mental health.”

It noted ingredients from melatonin to collagen to essential oils to ginger to CBD.

Other research studies have shown surprising benefits with plain ol’ letter vitamins and select minerals. Basic nutrition stuff.

A slew of nutrition research studies has been published in the last year related to COVID, specifically investigating baseline nutritional status and therapeutic dosage levels, and the results are really not too surprising to natural products insiders.

Vitamin D. Quercetin. Magnesium. Vitamin K2. Zinc. Copper. Vitamin C. All these nutrients have evidence, shown in the published literature over the past year, showing they can help against the pandemic.

So it turns out that, as ever, the core natural products shopper—and the overall marketplace from health food store retailers to supplement manufacturers, entrepreneurial food and beverage startups seeking to bring more health to more people to multinationals looking to acquire the innovators—was right.

Targeted supplementation, healthier food, better lifestyle practices and pursuits and improved nutrition (as well as convenience and taste) are the way forward.

"As important as it is to be vaccinated, we are overlooking the most important factor in determining all aspects of our approach to COVID-19–a strong immune system," says Andrew Myers, M.D., whose research points to three relatively easy steps people should take now, even before getting vaccinated, no matter their age or current health status.

"Step number one, if you have low vitamin D or low vitamin K2, and you get COVID-19, please hear me on this—you are far more likely to end up in the ICU or dead," says Myers, who co-authored the upcoming book "Simplifying the COVID-19 Puzzle" with Dr. Grace McComsey, VP of research and associated chief science officer at University Hospitals. "Why take that chance when taking a couple of vitamins each day is the cheapest and best life insurance policy on the planet?"

In a New Hope Network survey of more than 800 people collected the week of Aug. 17, 2020, 79% of respondents recognized that their immune system has a role to play both when they are sick and when they are healthy, while only 17% said they thought it helps them only when they are sick.

The opportunity for retailers and brands goes far afield from elderberry syrup and vitamin C pills.

In the beverage aisle alone there are probiotic drinks, coffee with added mushrooms, cold-pressed superfruit juices and teas. Orange juice, perhaps the most widely recognized healthy juice, now comes with added functional ingredients and an immunity claim. Salad dressings now come with immunity claims. Heck, even CBD—kings of the breakthrough supplement set pre-COVID-19—is getting in on the game with brands adding immunity-related ingredients.

Nutrition Business Journal asked: “If you got the vaccine today, would you alter your supplement usage?” More than half of natural shoppers plan to increase their supplement usage after vaccination, compared to only 33% in the general population. Is this a strategy to boost health during the vaccination process? Or early signs of a true new normal with a higher baseline post-pandemic? Either way, almost no one—just 5% of respondents—plans to decrease their supplement usage.

Few, it seems, are viewing the COVID-19 vaccines as a panacea.

About the Author(s)

Todd Runestad

Content Director,, Sr. Supplements Editor, Natural Products Insider

I've been writing on nutrition science news since 1997. I'm The content director for NaturalProductsInsidercom and digital magazines. Other incarnations: supplements editor for, Delicious Living and Natural Foods Merchandiser. Former editor-in-chief of Functional Ingredients magazine and still cover raw material innovations and ingredient science.

Connect with me here

My daily vitamin regime includes a morning smoothie with a range of powders including protein, collagen and spirulina; a quality multi, B complex, C with bioflavonoids, >2,000IU vitamin D, E, magnesium, high-selenium yeast, PQQ, choline, alpha-lipoic acid with carnitine, coQ10, fish oil concentrate, probiotics and some adaptogenic herbs. 

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