Eating a healthy plant-based diet is linked with a lower risk of developing COVID-19 and a lower risk of experiencing severe symptoms of the infection, according to a new study published in the journal Gut.
A team led by scientists at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Kings College London looked at data on 592,571 people from the UK and the US who had joined the smartphone-based ZOE COVID-19 Symptom Study. After assigning each participant with a Plant-Based Diet Score, the researchers looked at their risk of becoming infected with COVID-19, as well as their risk of experiencing serious symptoms once infected.
Compared with people who had lower diet scores, those with the healthier plant-based diets had a 9 percent lower risk of developing COVID-19 and a 41 percent lower risk of developing severe COVID-19.
While it's likely not surprising to hear that eating your greens and a well-balanced diet is good for your health, the researchers say their work indicates that nutrition could play a significant role in reducing an individual's risk of COVID-19. This, they argue, is something policymakers and health authorities should be paying attention to.
“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,” Andrew Chan, gastroenterologist, and chief of the Clinical and Translational Epidemiology Unit at MGH, said in a statement.
“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,” added Jordi Merino, lead author and research associate at the Diabetes Unit and Center for Genomic Medicine at MGH.
Other studies have come to very similar conclusions. Previous research published in June 2021 looked at data from six countries and found that plant-based diets or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19.
Crucially, this new study looked at how socioeconomic inequalities played into the question of nutrition and COVID-19. Diet, health, and socioeconomic factors have a complex and interwoven relationship, making it hard to pick out clear links. Just like other studies have found, the research found a clear link between socioeconomic deprivation and an increased risk for COVID-19. Furthermore, it appears that socioeconomic inequality and poor diet conflate with another; the two factors together led to an increased COVID-19 risk greater than the sum of each factor alone.
This association between poor diet and increased severity of COVID-19 was found to be especially evident in people living in areas with higher socioeconomic deprivation, indicating that people experiencing socioeconomic deprivation are likely to benefit the most from improving their diet and switching towards more plant-based food.