Study Finds Plant-Based Diets Protect Against Severe COVID-19 Symptoms

Jun 10, 2021

The first scientific study analyzing plant-based diets and COVID-19 symptom severity was just published on June 7, 2021 in the BMJ Journal for Nutrition, Prevention, and Health. Researchers from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Envision Health Partners, Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and Columbia University focused on healthcare workers from six different nations to better understand any associations between overall diet and COVID-19. The results were astounding: participants who followed plant-based diets experienced a 73 percent less risk of developing moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms while those who maintained low-carbohydrate, high animal protein diets were more likely to contract more serious symptoms. 

The Study

Five hundred and sixty-eight frontline physicians and nurses from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US were surveyed for this study. Their close proximity to COVID-19 patients and subsequent high risk of infection made this demographic a prime target for infectious disease researchers. As we all have learned this past year, pre-existing conditions play a role in the severity of COVID-19 symptoms—obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among these ailments. Researchers point out that these issues run high in economically advantaged countries—like the US and European nations—where “poor nutrition and unfavorable lifestyle choices (eg, physical inactivity or sedentary behavior)” drive the development of these pre-existing conditions. While vaccinations now offer temporary protection against the COVID-19 virus, this work shall contribute to the larger body of research that helps medical experts understand the associations between certain dietary patterns and infectious disease. 

Data was collected from participants using a 100+ question survey that addressed participants’ medical history, COVID-19 experience, and dietary patterns over the course of the past year. 

The Results

Based on participants’ data, researchers concluded that individuals who consumed plant-based diets significantly lowered their risk of contracting moderate to severe COVID-19. Alternatively, individuals who identified as low carb, high protein eaters (such as paleo and keto) were far more likely to experience severe symptoms. By the numbers, those who followed a plant-based diet had 73 percent lower odds of experiencing moderate to severe COVID-19 symptoms. In comparison, low carb, high protein diets were three times as likely to report moderate to severe symptoms. 

Note: while it is possible to follow a low carb, high protein diet and remain plant-based, the detailed food recall survey indicated that these individuals ate meat, dairy, and other animal products. Those who followed a plant-based diet consumed far more vegetables, nuts, and legumes compared to the high protein participants. 

Plant-Based Diets as a First Defense

A growing body of evidence suggests that plant-based diets may not only play a preventative role in chronic disease, but they can also decrease the severity of infectious disease. Researchers hypothesize that the abundance of nutrients and antioxidants found in plant-based foods support immune function by playing a key role in the production of antibodies and reducing oxidative stress. The conclusion boldly states, “Our results suggest that a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may be considered for protection against severe COVID-19.” 

The results indicate that health is determined by consistency over time. It’s not enough to do a cleanse once a quarter or eat vegan until 6pm—it’s about lifestyle, and those who refrain from dairy and other animal-based foods set themselves up for better health. There are many factors we cannot control—COVID-19 being a recent example—but by adhering to a plant-based diet, we can equip our bodies to handle the unknown. A dairy-free, plant-based diet is an effective yet severely underutilized defense against disease. Note: this doesn’t mean a plant-based diet can stand in for the vaccine. 

Learn more about plant-based diets and immunity here

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