COVID-19 disproportionately afflicts low-income Americans. Adults in households earning less than $25,000 are twice as likely to experience serious complications from coronavirus as those earning more than $50,000, according to a new Kaiser Family Foundation analysis.

This disparity is tragic -- but it isn't surprising. Poor Americans suffer from chronic conditions at far higher rates than the general population. And those underlying conditions make folks especially vulnerable to coronavirus.

Chronic diseases often result, not from inadequate medical care, but, from an unhealthy diet. A 2018 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association examined more than 80 risk factors for premature death. Poor nutrition was the single most influential factor, contributing to more than 520,000 deaths in 2016. 

In short, we could avert, literally, millions of fatalities each year simply by adopting better nutritional standards. And we can start by destigmatizing animal-derived foods.

For more than 30 years, nutritional "experts" have admonished people to minimize eggs, milk and red meat consumption to avoid cholesterol and saturated fats. This misguided advice was so pervasive that beginning in the 1970s, government officials endorsed nutrition guidelines telling Americans to limit their protein intake.

By and large, Americans stepped into line. Over the past 40 years, Americans have reduced their intake of milk, eggs, and beef by over 30 percent. In the mid-1970s, the average American ate nearly 70 pounds of beef each year. By 2015, that figure dropped to about 40 pounds, a drop of more than 40 percent.

Of course, we still needed to get our calories from somewhere. So most Americans simply replaced nutrient-dense eggs, milk and beef with carbs. According to Harvard University and Tufts University researchers, carbs now make up more than 50 percent of the American diet.

This shift destroyed our health. As we shifted our diet focus away from protein and toward carbohydrates, obesity and diabetes surged. And a public health crisis ensued. Today, more Americans than ever before are overweight or diabetic.

Indeed, scientists recently discovered a clear link between high-carb diets and poor health outcomes. One study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a correlation between Americans' intake of corn syrup, a common refined carb, and the rate of Type 2 diabetes. But it found no link between Type 2 diabetes and eating fats or protein.

The good news is that public health advocates can solve this problem simply by encouraging Americans to reverse course and replace ultra-processed and refined carbs with high-quality, protein-rich foods like beef, dairy, and eggs. Scientific research shows that protein-rich diets help correct body composition and prevent and fight illness.

Protein increases muscle mass, which helps us fight off disease. A 2019 study in The Lancet found that skeletal muscle strengthens the immune system, especially as we age. Or consider chemotherapy patients who experience debilitating nausea, vomiting, and weight loss. A 2018 Indiana University study found that having more lean muscle mass helped patients tolerate chemotherapy side effects.

Meat, milk, and eggs are the best sources of protein to maintain muscle health. A 2015 study in the Journal of Nutrition found that animal proteins outperform soy and wheat protein when it comes to powering the body to build muscle mass.

Red meat has been especially villainized, yet it's particularly helpful in fighting off illness thanks to how rich it is in iron, zinc, and selenium, along with vitamins B3, B6, and B12. Just consider iron, which increases the number of T cells, the human body's first line of defense against infection. All it takes is 4 ounces of lean beef to consume 17 percent of the USDA's recommended daily iron intake.

Will eating meat cure COVID-19?

No.

But millions of Americans suffer from chronic conditions caused by poor nutrition. They are overwhelmingly low-income. And if we hadn't dramatically cut our consumption of high-quality, nutrient-rich foods from animals over the past 50 years, there would be a lot fewer diabetics and obese patients in coronavirus wards struggling to breathe.

Don Layman is a professor emeritus of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois