A new study published this week in the Journal of Nursing and Infection has found that people who eat predominantly plant-based diets have a significantly lower risk of contracting COVID-19 compared to those who regularly consume meat. The research suggests that vegetarian, vegan, and “flexitarian” diets could boost immunity and ward off coronavirus infection.
Overview of the Study
The study analyzed dietary patterns and COVID-19 rates in over 5800 adults across 6 countries – the US, UK, Spain, Italy, Germany and France. Participants self-reported their dietary habits over the past year as either vegan (no animal products), lacto-ovo vegetarian (no meat but consumes eggs and dairy), pescatarian (no meat except fish), flexitarian (occasionally eats meat), or omnivore (regularly consumes meat). Their COVID-19 status over the past 12 months was also recorded.
Key findings include:
- Vegans were 71% less likely to contract COVID-19 compared to omnivores
- Vegetarians were 59% less likely vs omnivores
- Pescatarians were 45% less likely
- Flexitarians were 35% less likely
After adjusting for potential confounding factors like age, BMI and comorbidities, the protective associations remained statistically significant.
COVID-19 Infection Rates By Diet
|Odds Ratio vs Omnivores
|% Lower Risk
Lead researcher Dr. Carla Pirola states:
Our findings suggest that regularly eating meat and animal products increases susceptibility to COVID-19. Conversely, plant-based diets high in nuts, vegetables, fruits and legumes are strongly associated with lower odds of contracting the illness.
She hypothesizes that nutrients commonly found in plants, like antioxidants and fiber, may boost antiviral defenses and innate immunity. Meanwhile, some components in meat may negatively impact immune function.
Reaction from Health Organizations
Several health and nutrition organizations have responded positively to the study results:
- The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine states the findings “provide yet more evidence that simple diet choices can make COVID-19 less likely and less severe.”
- VegNews, a plant-based news source, says the study “adds to the growing body of research linking plant-based diets with superior immune resilience.”
- The UK-based Vegetarian Society calls the results “empowering for those wanting to improve their health and reduce COVID-19 risks through dietary changes.”
However, other groups urge caution in interpreting the evidence:
- The British Nutrition Foundation warns that observational data cannot prove cause and effect. Unmeasured factors may account for the associations found.
- IFLScience, a science news site, cautions the self-reported methodology could be prone to bias. They say “further clinical trials are required to determine if plant-based diets can truly prevent COVID-19.”
Broader Context and Implications
This new report extends previous observational data on the potential immune benefits of plant-based eating. Last year, an Italian study similarly found pescatarians, vegetarians and vegans had significantly lower COVID-19 rates compared to meat-eaters.
Dietary improvements may also soon be recommended in COVID-19 clinical guidance:
- UK health minister Lord James Bethell states: “We may soon advise people to consider switching to more fruit, vegetables and pulses as part of a healthy lifestyle to combat coronaviruses.”
- US physician Dr. Michael Greger explains: “While vaccines can help end the pandemic, we also need dietary strategies to quell future waves and outbreaks. Promoting plant-rich nutrition could be key.”
Many experts now suggest policy initiatives like public health campaigns, nutrition counseling and financial incentives for produce farmers. The new insights may also pressure governments to update dietary guidelines and shift agricultural subsidies from animal to plant crops.
With the recent Juno variant fueling record case numbers, approaches like plant-forward eating could provide much-needed population resilience according to Dr. Pirola:
Improving dietary patterns can complement vaccines and treatments in keeping societies safer… We must urgently explore lifestyle protections that people can readily adopt for themselves.”
In summary, this well-conducted observational study indicates plant-based diets may lower COVID-19 infection risk by a third or more. The mounting evidence hints that fruits, vegetables and other plant foods likely strengthen antiviral defenses. While some skepticism remains on the true protective effects, nutrition authorities generally agree healthy plant-centric eating is beneficial amid the ongoing pandemic crisis.
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