As Mr. Vilsack said, “The time has come for us to transform the food system in this country in an accelerated way. ”

Early in the pandemic, when many businesses and entertainment venues were forced to close, toilet paper was not the only commodity stripped from market shelves. The country was suddenly confronted with a shortage of flour and yeast as millions of Americans “stuck” at home went on a baking frenzy. While I knew their need to relieve stress, feel effective and perhaps help others less competent or so inclined, bread, muffins and biscuits were not the most wholesome products that might have emerged from pandemic kitchens.

When calorie-rich foods and snacks are in the house, they can be hard to resist when there’s little else to prompt the release of pleasure-enhancing brain chemicals. To no one’s great surprise, smoking rates also rose during the pandemic, introducing still another threat to Covid susceptibility.

And there’s been a run on alcoholic beverages . National sales of alcohol during one week in March 2020 were 54 percent higher than the comparable week the year before. The Harris Poll corroborated that almost 1 adult in four drank more alcohol than usual to deal with pandemic-related stress. Not only is alcohol a supply of empty calories, its wanton consumption could lead to reckless behavior that further increases susceptibility to Covid.

Well before the pandemic prompted a rise in calorie consumption, Americans were eating significantly more calories each day than they realized, thanks in large part to the ready availability of ultra-processed foods, especially the ones that tease, “you can’t eat only one. ” (Example: Corn on the cob is unprocessed, canned corn is processed, but Doritos are ultra-processed).

In a brief but carefully designed diet , Kevin D. Hall and colleagues at the National Institutes of Health surreptitiously gave 20 adults diets which were abundant in either ultra-processed foods or unprocessed foods coordinated for calorie, sugar, fat, sodium, fiber and protein content. Told to eat as much as they wanted, the unsuspecting participants consumed 500 calories a day more on the ultra-processed diet.

If you’ve been reading my column for years, you know that I’m not a fanatic when it comes to food. I have many containers of ice cream in my freezer; cookies, crackers and even chips in my cabinet ; and I enjoy a burger now and then. But my everyday diet is based mostly on vegetables, with fish, beans and nonfat milk my most important sources of protein. My consumption of snacks and ice cream is portion-controlled and, along with daily exercise, has enabled me to remain weight-stable despite yearlong pandemic tension and occasional despair.

As Marion Nestle, professor emerita of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, says, “This isn’t rocket science. ” She doesn’t preach deprivation, just moderation (except perhaps for a total ban on soda). We need a national policy aimed at preventing obesity, she explained, a national campaign to help all Americans get healthier. ”