Eating more plant-based foods may lower COVID-19 infection risk

BOSTON, Mass. — New research out of Boston reports consuming more healthy plant-based foods may lower both the risk of contracting COVID-19 and the possibility of severe symptoms upon infection. While doctors say metabolic conditions including obesity and type 2 diabetes can put an individual at greater risk of severe COVID-19 complications, this work is among the first to add diet into the equation.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital add the effect of diet on COVID risk and symptom severity is especially strong among those living in disadvantaged socioeconomic areas.

“Previous reports suggest that poor nutrition is a common feature among groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but data on the association between diet and COVID-19 risk and severity are lacking,” says lead study author Jordi Merino, PhD, a research associate at MGH and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School, in a media release.

Diet ‘quality’ may influence COVID infection rates

The research team analyzed data collected on 592,571 participants originally collected for the COVID-19 Symptom Study. The work included both U.S. and U.K. residents examined between March and December 2020. Each participant filled out a survey on their dietary and eating habits, with study authors assessing “diet quality” using the Diet Plant-BasedDiet Score, a scale that emphasizes fruits and vegetables.

Over the tracking period, a total of 31,831 participants contracted COVID-19. Notably, people consuming the healthiest diets had a nine-percent lower risk of COVID infection in comparison to those eating the poorest diets. Similarly, results show healthy eaters were 41 percent less at risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“These findings were consistent across a range of sensitivity analysis accounting for other healthy behaviors, social determinants of health and community virus transmission rates,” Dr. Merino adds.

“Although we cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings, our study suggests that individuals can also potentially reduce their risk of getting COVID-19 or having poor outcomes by paying attention to their diet,” says co-senior study author Andrew Chan, MD, MPH, a gastroenterologist and chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at MGH.

Getting healthy food into poorer areas may stop COVID

Researchers also observed a cumulative relationship between poor diet, increased socioeconomic deprivation, and COVID-19 risk. In other words, individuals living in poorer areas and eating an unhealthy diet are much more susceptible to the virus than either of those conditions alone.

“Our models estimate that nearly a third of COVID-19 cases would have been prevented if one of two exposures—diet or deprivation—were not present,” Dr. Merino explains.

In summation, researchers believe making healthy, plant-based foods more readily available and affordable can go a long way towards ending the pandemic.

“Our findings are a call to governments and stakeholders to prioritize healthy diets and wellbeing with impactful policies, otherwise we risk losing decades of economic progress and a substantial increase in health disparities,” Dr. Merino concludes.

The study appears in the journal Gut. 

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