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Plant-based diets may protect against severe COVID

Woman eating a plant-based meal, sitting crossed legged outside

Eating a plant-based or pescatarian diet may lower your risk of developing moderate to severe symptoms if you’re infected with COVID-19, according to new research.

The study of 2884 frontline healthcare workers across six countries found participants infected with COVID (568 cases) who followed plant-based diets – higher in vegetables and legumes and low in poultry and red and processed meats – had a 73 per cent lower chance of moderate to severe infection from COVID-19, compared with other eating patterns.

And participants who ate a plant-based pescatarian (including fish) diet had 59 per cent lower odds of moderate to severe infection.

Interestingly, participants who ate a low-carb-high-protein diet had ‘non-significant 48 per cent greater odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19-like illness, compared with individuals who did not follow these diets’.

Plant-based and pescatarian deliver immune-boosting nutrients

The researchers say diets rich in cell-protecting phytochemicals (found in plants), vitamins, minerals and anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids are important for healthy immune function.

“Our results suggest that a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may be considered for protection against severe COVID-19,” the researchers say in a press release.

Study limitations

The study, published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health was observational so can’t prove cause and effect, only a correlation.

It involved surveying participants, relying on self-reporting which is not always completely consistent, and most of the participants were male (70 per cent) meaning the findings may not apply to women.

But it is well established a high-quality diet is important for immunity, so further investigation is warranted.

Plant-based health benefits

Previous studies have shown a plant-based Mediterranean-style diet lowers the risk of heart disease, cancer and obesity (which is also a risk factor for severe COVID). And eating more plants is associated with increased gut bacteria diversity which may support immunity.

We all know that eating five-plus vegetable serves a day is the goal for these health benefits, but variety is also important.

Results from the American Gut Study suggest eating more than 30 diverse plants per week is ideal, and this goes beyond vegetables and fruit to include legumes, grains/cereals, nuts and seeds.

The bottom line

Eating a plant-based or pescatarian diet may lower the risk of moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms, if infected.

Although the findings need further investigation, eating a diet rich in whole and minimally processed plant foods and low in red and processed meats is protective against a range of diseases and beneficial for gut health, which supports a healthy immune response.

For more on following a plant-based diet you might be interested in: Five rules for a plant-based diet

First published: Jun 2021

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