It’s well known that many different factors may affect how well a person’s immune system can fight off dangerous bacteria and viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 — from your genetic makeup to your age and whether you have certain medical conditions. The researchers noted that while many behaviors have been linked to a higher or lower risk of developing COVID-19, the role that diet may play is largely unexplored. They aimed to change this, in an analysis of data taken from 592,571 participants in a smartphone-based study called the COVID Symptom Study. These participants lived in both the United States and the United Kingdom, and answered a variety of questions on their phone on a regular basis, including questions related to their COVID-19 status. Participants were recruited between March and December 2020, spanning many different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
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Plant-based diet linked to lower COVID-19 risk
As part of the survey they took, participants answered questions about their intake of 27 different types of food items, as described in an article at FoodNavigator.com. Over a follow-up period that averaged 6.56 months per person, a total of 31,815 cases of COVID-19 were recorded. Among participants who the researchers determined had the healthiest plant-based diets, the rate of developing COVID-19 was 72 per 10,000 person-months, compared with 104 per 10,000 person-months among participants with the unhealthiest diets. People with the healthiest diets were more likely to be older, female, physically active, health care workers, and to have a lower body-mass index (a measure of body weight that takes height into account). But the researchers found a link between diet and COVID-19 even after adjusting for differences in other factors known to be linked to COVID-19 risk, with an adjusted risk level that was 9% lower in participants wit the healthiest diets.
A similar link between diet and COVID-19 was seen with more severe disease, as participants with the healthiest diets were less likely to develop severe symptoms or to need hospitalization. This link was even more pronounced than when it came to the overall risk of developing COVID-19 — participants with the healthiest diets were 41% less likely to develop severe disease. The researchers also found that the link between diet and COViD-19 risk was more pronounced among participants who lived in areas with greater socioeconomic deprivation — areas of the country that already tended to be more affected by COVID-19.
The researchers concluded that following a healthy plant-based diet appears to reduce the risk of developing COVID-19, and especially the risk of severe disease. It’s unclear whether the level of risk reduction seen in this study would still apply to the current COVID-19 landscape, with many people vaccinated against the disease and more contagious variants of the virus in circulation. But there are practically no health risks that come with following a healthier diet, so a lower risk for severe COVID-19 may be just one more potential benefit to add to the long list of benefits that come from following a healthy plant-based diet.
Want to learn more about coronavirus and diabetes? Read our latest COVID-19 updates.