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Plant-based diet linked to lower COVID-19 risk

A recent study has revealed a significant connection between dietary habits and the risk of COVID-19 infection. The researchers found that individuals following a predominantly plant-based or vegetarian diet have a reduced risk of contracting COVID-19 by nearly 40 percent.

The study suggests that a diet rich in vegetables, legumes, nuts – and low in dairy and meat products – may offer protective benefits against the virus.

Focus of the study 

The research, conducted between March and July 2022, involved 702 adult participants. The individuals were categorized into two groups: omnivores and those with a predominantly plant-based diet. 

The plant-based diet group was further divided into flexitarians/semi-vegetarians and vegetarians and vegans. In their analysis, the experts accounted for various factors such as lifestyle, medical history, and COVID-19 vaccination status.

Critical new insights

The plant-based diet group did not show significant differences in sex, age, or vaccination rates compared to omnivores. However, this group had a higher education level and lower prevalence of medical conditions and other factors known to affect the odds of COVID-19 infection.

Out of all participants, 47% had been infected with COVID-19. The incidence was notably higher in omnivores compared to those who had plant-based diets. Furthermore, the omnivores were more likely to experience severe symptoms.

Overall, the likelihood of infection was 39% lower in those following a predominantly plant-based or vegetarian diet.

Plant-based diets

The researchers hypothesize that the protective effects of plant-based diets can be attributed to nutrients that are involved in immune responses and directly combat viral infections.

“Plant-based dietary patterns are rich in antioxidants, phytosterols and polyphenols, which positively affect several cell types implicated in the immune function and exhibit direct antiviral properties,” wrote the study authors.

Further research is needed 

Despite these compelling findings, the researchers acknowledge limitations, such as reliance on participant recall and subjective assessments, which can introduce errors.

“This research adds to the existing evidence, suggesting that diet may have a role in susceptibility to COVID-19 infection,” said Shane McAuliffe, an associate at the NNEdPro Global Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health.

“But this remains an area of research that warrants more rigorous and high quality investigation before any firm conclusions can be drawn about whether particular dietary patterns increase the risk of COVID-19 infection.”

Study implications 

“In light of these findings and the findings of other studies, and because of the importance of identifying factors that can influence the incidence of COVID-19, we recommend the practice of following plant-based diets or vegetarian dietary patterns,” wrote the study authors.

“Our study provides evidence that individuals with a plant-based diet and mainly a vegetarian diet had a lower incidence of COVID-19 even after accounting for important variables like physical activity, BMI and pre-existing conditions.”

“Our results suggest that a plant-based diet and mainly vegetarian diet may be considered for protection against infection with COVID-19.”

The research is published in the journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health.

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