Plant-based diets are shown to have many health benefits when it comes to chronic illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, certain forms of cancer, and heart disease.
Any possible link between diet and Covid-19 had not been researched, however, until now. A recent study published in the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health found that plant-based “dietary patterns may be considered for protection against severe COVID-19.” (1)
The research study looked at data gathered from healthcare professionals in six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the USA. Researchers surveyed 2,884 doctors and nurses who had been exposed to SARS-CoV-2 through their work. Of these, 2,316 hadn’t experienced any COVID-19 symptoms or tested positive for the virus. They became the study’s control group.
568 people reported having symptoms consistent with COVID-19 or a positive test. 138 individuals reported moderate to severe cases, while the rest had mild or very mild symptoms.
Participants were asked to choose a diet from among 11 selections that most closely resembled their own for the last year. The selections included:
- whole foods, plant-based diet;
- keto diet;
- vegetarian diet;
- Mediterranean diet;
- pescatarian diet;
- Palaeolithic diet;
- low fat diet;
- low carbohydrate diet;
- high protein diet;
- none of the above
Of the 586 people who reported COVID illness, 41 stated they had been following a plant-based diet. Another 46 were pescatarian. The remaining 481 subjects had all been on diets that included animal products.
After adjusting for age, ethnicity, medical profession, weight, body mass index, number of comorbidities, and lifestyle behaviors (smoking and physical activity), those who declared themselves to be plant-based were 73 percent were less likely to fall ill with severe COVID-19 than those who ate traditional, meat-based diets.
Additionally, those who reported as following pescatarian diets (diets that are fully plant-based with the exception of fish) were found to have a 59 percent lower risk of experiencing moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms than meat-eaters.
The study’s authors, based in the US from universities and hospitals including Columbia and Stamford, stated that “plant-based diets or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe Covid 19.” (1)
What about those who followed one of the most popular current diet trends; high protein, low carbohydrate? Individuals who reported following a low carbohydrate, high protein diet had significantly greater odds of moderate to severe Covid-19-like illness, when compared with individuals who followed plant-based diets. (1)
“Our results highlight that it may be advisable to follow a healthy dietary pattern such as plant-based diets or pescatarian diets.” (1)
So plant-based diets can help lessen the severity of COVID once you catch it, but can they help you not catch it in the first place? The answer is, possibly. According to the researchers, “when we restricted cases to those with a positive PCR or antibody test, individuals who reported following plant-based diets or pescatarian diets had lower odds of COVID-19 infection.” (1)
This fits with epidemiological studies, which have shown time and time again that a diet high in fruits and vegetables decreases a person’s risk of upper respiratory tract infections.
Why Are Plant-Based Diets Protective?
It has been well documented throughout the pandemic that underlying health conditions increase the possibility of complications from SARS CoV-2; conditions such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. It is the position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that a well-planned vegan diet may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of these diseases. (6)
Obesity, heart disease, hypertension, and type 2 diabetes have all been successfully treated with a plant-based diet. The more plants you eat the better, yet according to the CDC, only 1 in 10 adults get enough fruits or vegetables! (2) With all this in mind, you are more prepared to resist the effects of viral infections, including COVID-19, on a vegan diet.
Here are some of the mechanisms by which whole plant foods can help protect you.
Vitamins and Minerals Boost Your Immune System
Whole plant foods are loaded with various vitamins and minerals that are essential for a healthy immune system. Some of these are zinc and selenium, as well as vitamins A, C, and E.
Heard of Zicam? It’s one of the most popular and effective cold medicines on the market. The active ingredients in Zicam are zinc acetate and zinc gluconate. Powerful stuff.
Or you could just eat beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, walnuts, cashew nuts, chia seeds, flaxmeal, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, whole grain bread, and quinoa, which are loaded with all-natural zinc.
Selenium is also incredibly important for a strong immune system and is found naturally in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower.
Eat your veggies, boost your immune system.
A Healthy Gut Leads to Enhanced Immunity
Our gut is an important barrier between ourselves and the outside world. One study found that people with “increased gut permeability and reduced gut microbiome diversity” had more severe COVID-19 symptoms. The researchers concluded that probiotics and prebiotics may improve immune function in people with a SARS-CoV-2 infection. (3)
The fiber in plant foods provides prebiotics that feed our anti-inflammatory gut bacteria.
Here’s the really good news. The gut microbiome adapts quickly to changes in diet. If you adopt a whole foods, plant-based diet, your gut bacteria will change, resulting in an enhanced immune system. On the flip side, “animal-based diet(s) support a link between dietary fat, bile acids, and the outgrowth of microorganisms capable of triggering inflammatory bowel disease.” (4)
India represents an interesting epidemiological study in this case. The COVID lockdown forced people indoors, resulting in more healthy home-cooked meals. Traditional diets in India are plant-based and high in fiber. Patients in India had “better prognosis of COVID-19 in comparison to that observed in the western countries.” (5) The authors suggest that a plant-based diet is likely to boost gut microbes that result in an anti-inflammatory response.
Plant-Based Diets and Obesity
According to a meta-analysis, patients with obesity are at high risk of mortality from COVID-19 infection. (8)
Plant-based diets have successfully helped people lose weight, and keep it off. And not just anecdotally! “Interventional trials have consistently demonstrated that consumption of plant-based diets reduces body fat in overweight and obese subjects, even when controlling for energy intake”. (7)
No fad diets or testimonials; actual science just doing its work.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
There has never been a better time than right now to adopt a whole food, plant-based diet. I started my vegan journey as a pescatarian. For me, removing other animal products wasn’t a huge heal, but I loved fish! After a short while (and a lot of knowledge later!), removing fish was actually pretty easy.
If going “full-veg” seems intimidating or unrealistic right now, start by adding as many fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to your diet as you can, and limit the number of animal products you eat. Start one meal at a time, and load up on as many immune-boosting whole plant foods as you can.