Following a healthy plant-based diet is linked to a lower risk of developing COVID-19 and better outcomes in people who develop the viral infection, according to a new study published in the journal Gut.
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that certain health conditions — including diabetes — are linked to worse outcomes in people who develop the infection. But there hasn’t been much research on the role that diet may play in outcomes related to COVID-19. This type of research is complicated by the fact that diet can play a role in intermediate outcomes that affect COVID-19 outcomes — for example, certain dietary patterns are linked to a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes. And it isn’t feasible to conduct a lab-based study in which meals are provided to participants to measure COVID-19 outcomes, since exposure to the coronavirus is key to measuring these outcomes.
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For the latest study, researchers looked at data from 592,571 people who took part in a smartphone-based study on COVID-19 outcomes. These participants came from both the United States and the United Kingdom, and were recruited starting in March 2020 and followed until December 2020. At the start of the study, they competed a questionnaire about their dietary habits before the COVID-19 pandemic — which may, of course, be different from their habits since the pandemic began. The researchers used these responses to give each participant a score based on how closely their diet followed the model of a healthy plant-based diet, emphasizing unprocessed plant foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes (such as beans and peas), as noted in a news release on the study.
During the follow-up period, 31,831 participants (5.4%) developed COVID-19. When all participants were divided into four groups of equal size based on their diet score, the bottom group was 9% less likely to develop COVID-19 than the top group — not an overwhelming difference, and certainly small enough that it could conceivably be due to differences in other behaviors that affect COVID-19 risk. But people in the top diet group were also 41% less likely to develop severe COVID-19, demonstrating that diet was linked to better outcomes even just among participants who developed COVID-19.
“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,” said study author Andrew Chan, MD, chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) in Boston, in the news release.
These results suggest that policies to improve access to healthy foods could play a key role in reducing the burden of COVID-19, according to study author Jordi Merino, PhD, a research associate at the Diabetes Unit and the Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH. “Our findings are a call to governments and stakeholders to prioritize healthy diets and well-being with impactful policies,” said Merino in the news release. “Otherwise we risk losing decades of economic progress and a substantial increase in health disparities.”
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