Can veganism really reduce a person’s risk of COVID-19?
A vegan or plant-based diet can’t stop a person from developing COVID-19, but it can help support a healthy immune system. This in turn could help prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and reduce the risk of severe symptoms.
People should note that there is no direct evidence to support a link between a plant-based or vegan diet and protection against COVID-19 or other serious illnesses.
With that said, plant-based diets can also lower a person’s risk of obesity and chronic disease. These are conditions that tend to worsen the outcome of COVID-19.
This article explores plant-based diets and their health benefits compared to COVID-19 and others. It also examines how a vegan diet could reduce risk factors for more serious effects from COVID-19.
There is no specific diet that reduces the risk of developing COVID-19.
the World Health Organization (WHO) advise people to eat a balanced diet to strengthen their immune systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes consuming fresh, unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
The WHO also recommends avoiding the consumption of sugar, fat and salt, and limiting the consumption of red meat to 1 to 2 times per week and poultry to 2 to 3 times per week. They also suggest consuming no more than 160g of meat and beans per day.
According to research, a plant-based diet has health benefits for weight, energy metabolism, and systemic inflammation. These beneficial effects could support a healthy immune system and reduce a person’s risk of experiencing serious effects from COVID-19.
That said, it’s important to note that following a plant-based diet and identifying yourself as vegan are not, strictly speaking, the same. The term “plant-based” refers only to food, while veganism incorporates other factors.
People who identify as vegans oppose the exploitation or killing of animals for food, clothing or any other reason. However, some people who identify as vegans may eat mostly processed foods, which in itself as a diet is not beneficial for health.
In contrast, people who follow a plant-based diet consume mainly or exclusively plant foods. People may have a diet that consists only or mainly of whole, freshly prepared foods. They may choose this approach for health, environmental or ethical reasons.
It should be noted that a plant-based diet does not necessarily lead to an improvement in the immune system. A person can be on a plant-based diet and be in poor health from consuming too much processed foods, plant-based alternatives, and vegetable fats.
If a person eats mostly processed foods and few vegetables and fruits and does not supplement essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, they can neutralize the potential benefits of a plant-based diet.
Learn more about foods with vitamin B12 for vegetarians and vegans here.
In the sections below, we discuss some of the health benefits of plant-based diets and how following them may impact your risk of developing COVID-19.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that people get from their diet. The human body also produces vitamin D in response to sun exposure.
Plant foods contain many vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy immune system, such as zinc, selenium, and vitamins A, C and E. Selenium is a trace mineral that benefits the health of the immune system and functions cognitive.
By opting for a plant-based diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, or by consuming more plant-based foods, people will increase their intake of essential minerals and vitamins that support the immune system. This in turn can increase people’s resilience to COVID-19.
Learn more about anti-inflammatory foods here.
Increase in antioxidants and polyphenols
Healthy vegan diets that include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants. These are compounds that fight free radicals and help counter oxidative stress.
Certain vitamins and minerals, as well as plant compounds such as polyphenols, act as antioxidants. Polyphenols are found in berries, olives, and nuts, among other foods.
According to a Review 2021, studies are currently underway to test whether polyphenols could potentially help prevent or treat viral infections, such as SARS-CoV-2 infections. However, at present, there is no evidence of this.
The authors explain that as people get older, their immune systems are less able to fight infections. Researchers call this immunological aging immunosenescence. Polyphenols can counteract the process of senescence and reduce inflammation.
Another see again notes that excessive oxidative stress may be responsible for lung damage, thrombosis and red blood cell dysregulation that occurs in some people with COVID-19.
The review authors suggest that antioxidants may have therapeutic effects. Therefore, a plant-based diet rich in antioxidants and polyphenols may help protect against COVID-19.
Learn more about some of the best foods rich in antioxidants here.
Support for a healthy gut microbiome
According to some research, SARS-CoV-2 affects the gut microbiota, and probiotics and prebiotics can improve immune function in people infected with SARS-CoV-2.
The fiber in plant foods provides prebiotics to nourish gut bacteria. Research shows that plant-based diets favorably influence the gut microbiome, increasing bacterial diversity and potentially reducing inflammation.
According to a 2020 review, a high-fiber, plant-based diet may have protected COVID-19 patients in India. The authors suggest that plant-based foods may stimulate a gut microbiota capable of triggering an anti-inflammatory response.
Decreased obesity and co-morbidities
Eating a plant-based diet can help people avoid obesity and other health conditions that could make their experience with COVID-19 worse if they develop it.
Research suggests that infection with SARS-CoV-2 leads to increased hospitalization rates and greater disease severity in people with diabetes or obesity.
According to a Study 2020, obesity was the most frequently reported underlying medical condition – 72.5% – among healthcare workers hospitalized for COVID-19 in the United States.
Authors of a Analysis 2016 indicate that plant-based diets may reduce inflammation and the risk of chronic disease in obese people.
A 2019 review notes that a plant-based diet can help prevent the development of overweight, obesity and diabetes. Research also supports the cardiovascular benefits of the diet.
People wishing to switch to a vegan diet should make sure to eat fresh whole foods and avoid processed foods and “vegan junk food”.
As veganism gains in popularity, more and more grocery stores and food stores now offer a variety of vegan products.
It’s important to note, however, that a product is vegan doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. It is always advisable to check the nutrient density and amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats, and added sugars of vegan products that people are considering purchasing.
People will benefit the most from choosing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and sources of protein.
Including a wide variety of plant foods and “eating a rainbow” allows people on a plant-based diet to get all the nutrients they need.
However, plant foods do not contain vitamin B12, an essential nutrient needed for the production of red blood cells and for brain function, among others.
This is why it is important for people following a plant-based diet to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 and preferably take a vitamin B12 supplement. They may also need to supplement omega-3 fatty acids.
People can find many resources and recipes online for planning their plant-based meals. They may also consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist.
Learn more about high protein plant foods here.
There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that a single diet can reduce a person’s risk of developing COVID-19.
However, a plant-based or vegan diet can support a healthy immune system. This in turn may limit the risk of infection with SARS-CoV-2, as well as its serious health complications.
A plant-based diet can also help prevent the development of chronic health conditions that could lead to complications or increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.
A vegan diet can also help people achieve moderate weight and prevent obesity, reducing the risk of a worse outcome from COVID-19.
It is worth noting that not all vegan foods are healthy and people should avoid processed vegan foods and choose a whole diet instead.
People on a strict vegan diet should also make sure to supplement essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12.