Covid-19: People who follow plant-based and fish diets may have less severe infection, study finds

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  • Plant- and fish-based eating patterns have significant health benefits, including when it comes to Covid-19 infection
  • New research suggests that such diets can lead to less severe Covid-19
  • These findings were based on an online survey involving frontline healthcare workers across six countries

Plant-based and pescatarian (fish-based) diets have become the new face of healthy living, and according to the latest research, this lifestyle could lower your chances of experiencing severe Covid-19, should you catch the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

The results are based on data from six countries and were published in BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health.

“... Nutritional factors play a key role in both innate and adaptive immunity … Plant-based diets or pescatarian diets are healthy dietary patterns, which may be considered for protection against severe Covid-19,” the authors wrote.

Respondents who said they ate plant-based or plant- and fish-based diets had, respectively, 73% and 59% lower odds of experiencing moderate to severe Covid-19 infection, compared with those who didn't follow these dietary patterns, the researchers found.

Pescatarian diets lie within the spectrum of plant-based diets, they said, and include a variety of seafood while restricting the intake of other meats.

What the study involved

The study was based on the online survey responses of 2 884 frontline doctors and nurses from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the UK, and the US who faced extensive exposure to the new coronavirus, and, as a result, had a high chance of Covid infection.

The survey ran between July and September 2020. Participants were asked about their dietary patterns (via a 47-item food frequency questionnaire), personal background, medical history, meditation, lifestyle, as well as the severity of any Covid infection they had experienced. 

Researchers divided diets into the following categories:

  • Plant-based (higher in vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and lower in poultry and red and processed meats)
  • Pescatarian/plant-based (as above, but with seafood) 
  • Low carb high protein diets

Low carb high protein diet less protective

Around 568 respondents reported symptoms consistent with Covid infection or testing positive without any symptoms, while 2 316 (the comparison group) reported neither having any symptoms nor testing positive.

Among the 568 cases, 138 healthcare frontline workers said they had experienced moderate to severe Covid illness. The remaining 430 respondents said they had very mild to mild infection.

Mild to moderate Covid symptoms include headache, fever or chills, cough, sore throat, while severe symptoms include difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, difficulty waking up or staying awake, or new confusion, notes the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Participants who ate a plant-based diet were compared with those who reported eating a low carb high protein diet. The latter were found to have nearly four times the odds of moderate to severe infection.

The researchers also investigated whether there was any association between the types of diet and the risk of contracting Covid-19, or the length of illness, but found no link.

What’s in plants and fish?

Plant-based diets are rich in nutrients, especially phytochemicals – compounds produced by plants that may be beneficial to human health, according to Harvard Health. The researchers also pointed to earlier evidence reporting that levels of fibre, vitamins A, C, and E, folate, and minerals (iron, potassium, magnesium) were highest among people who ate plant-based diets.

“Studies have reported that supplementation of some of these nutrients, specifically, vitamins A, C, D, and E, decreased the risk of respiratory infections, such as the common cold and pneumonia, and shortened the duration of these illnesses,” they wrote.

Similarly, fish is an important source of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids, both of which have anti-inflammatory properties, they added.

Based on their results, they concluded that “a healthy diet rich in nutrient-dense foods may be considered for protection against severe Covid-19".

According to the results of a survey commissioned by Knorr this year, the average South African plate consists of 41% starch, mostly bread, and 26% meat, mostly chicken – and that many South Africans are confused about exactly what a plant-based diet consists of, Business Insider SA reported.

*For more Covid-19 research, science, and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here.

READ | What is a nutritionally balanced diet and how do you achieve it?

READ | How to make sense of nutrition labels

READ | Covid-19: Almost 50% of patients have lasting health issues, cases may be underreported

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