Can Plant-Based Diets Provide Protection from COVID-19?
2020 saw the world’s governments initiate desperate measures to save lives as the COVID-19 pandemic swept from continent to continent. But it’s possible that some among us, who had already taken “life-preserving” measures on our own accord, may have been afforded some protection against the coronavirus.
A published study has investigated the association between dietary patterns and COVID-19 and found a vegan diet substantially (73%) reduces an individual’s risk of contracting moderate to severe COVID-19. In comparison, pescatarian diets resulted in a 59% reduction in risk. The findings were based on online surveys completed by healthcare workers from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, and the USA, with substantial exposure to COVID-19 patients. Researchers evaluated associations between respondents’ diets and their COVID-19 infection status, severity, and duration.
Experts have warned that the study only shows an association between diets and illness. It doesn’t explain why vegans and pescatarians appear to have fared better during the pandemic. It could be that these diets help prevent obesity and chronic diseases, which generally make people more vulnerable to the virus. It could also be that these diets strengthen our immune systems, enabling them to protect us better when we’re exposed to infection. Research suggests that a plant-based diet reduces inflammation, helps to maintain a healthy weight, and positively impacts energy levels via improved metabolism.
How a Vegan Diet Can Improve Overall Health
While vegans by definition don’t eat animal products, they may eat processed foods and plant fats, both of which can negatively affect health when consumed in excess. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only 10% of adult Americans eat enough fruits or vegetables. Therefore, even a plant-based diet needs to be consciously undertaken to have the maximum health effect. When switching to a vegan diet, look to obtain adequate:
Vitamins and Minerals
British research has suggested that optimal levels of micronutrients may make people more resilient to COVID-19. Plants contain various essential vitamins (A, C, and E) and minerals such as zinc and selenium.
Antioxidants and Polyphenols
Antioxidants fight free radicals and oxidative stress, the latter of which is suspected of causing lung damage and other symptoms exhibited by some COVID-19 patients. Antioxidants are found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, can be found in nuts and berries and some other plant foods. They can counteract the degradation of the immune system that happens with age and reduce inflammation. Some scientists suspect they can also help fight viral infections.
A Healthy Gut Microbiome
Plant-based diets improve the gut microbiome by increasing bacterial diversity and reducing inflammation. Plant fiber provides prebiotics to feed healthy gut bacteria.
Several studies have also linked plant-based diets to the maintenance of a healthy body weight and reduced comorbidities. As people with obesity and diabetes are among the highest at risk for hospitalization due to COVID-19, a healthy vegan diet could potentially offer some protection from the disease.
A Vegan Lifestyle Has Benefits Beyond Diet
For many people, veganism is about more than a plant-based diet. It is a philosophy of non-exploitation of the animals we share this earth with. The verdict on how COVID-19 came into existence is still out, but there are diseases like SARS and swine flu known to transition from animals to humans. Environments like factory farms can be prime breeding grounds for these zoonotic diseases.
Factory farming of animals also involves excessive use of antibiotics to promote growth and counteract the diseases that spread easily when animals are kept in unnaturally crowded and unhealthy conditions — these filter down to the meat they produce and ultimately onto the plates of consumers. The World Health Organization has accordingly urged against the routine use of antibiotics in livestock, citing fears of antibiotic resistance.
Vegans and other people following plant-based diets reduce the global need for factory farms. By shifting to a vegan lifestyle, you don’t only protect yourself — you may help prevent further epidemics. You will also save animals from a miserable existence and painful death.
Animal Agriculture Can Harm the Environment
Just in case you don’t already have enough reasons to switch to veganism, commercial livestock farming for a high-meat diet produces more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions it takes to feed a vegan. Livestock farming can also pollute rivers and waterways. Raising animals for human consumption also requires much more resources than growing crops. To produce one kilogram of beef, for example, it requires 15,000 liters of water.
We’ve had to adjust to so many challenging preventative measures over the last year and a half to protect ourselves and our loved ones. Veganism seems a comparatively small step to make such a significant difference in our own health and the world around us. What we choose to eat can have enormous consequences, so why not be mindful of our choices?