Can a Plant-Based Diet Reduce the Risk of Severe COVID-19?

Adopting a plant-based diet, similar to people from high longevity areas known as “Blue Zones,” may protect against severe COVID-19 infection, according to a commentary piece published this month in the the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

As the pandemic persists, precipitated by the omicron variant, a central question remains: How can we prevent “breakthrough” infections in those who are vaccinated? Well, vaccine effectiveness may be markedly reduced in those with chronic conditions, particularly hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, and smokers. COVID-related deaths are higher in people living with these conditions; conditions linked to dietary and lifestyle choices that can be changed. In fact, as noted in the article, people who implement healthy lifestyle changes have appreciable protection against COVID.

Dietary alterations yielding better COVID outcomes are backed by data from Merino et al, which showed in an analysis of over 592,000 people that a plant-based diet was associated with a 9% lower risk of COVID infection, and 41% lower risk of severe COVID. Also, dietary data on nearly 600 COVID cases and over 2,300 healthcare worker controls from six countries (France, Germany, Spain, UK, USA, Italy) with substantial exposure to COVID have exhibited that those eating a plant-based diet have a 73% lower risk of moderate-to-severe COVID.

The commentary then shifted to “Blue Zones,” and how we (in the U.S.) may draw a lesson from these locations in reducing dangerous COVID. People in Okinawa, Japan, for example, eat a predominately plant-based diet (rich with sweet potatoes), and have enjoyed “remarkable resistance” to COVID deaths. As of June 2021, the COVID-19 mortality rate in Okinawa is a very low 0.08%, or one-sixteenth the mortality rate of Tokyo (1.3%). The two nations are roughly the same size, highlighting the substantial benefit of consuming such a diet.

To address the ongoing surge of COVID, the authors wrote, “We must address the major lifestyle risk factors, such as smoking, lack of physical activity, and, most of all, poor diet. Adopting a healthful plant-based diet and lifestyle is a powerful tool which may delay the aging process, decrease age-associated co-morbidities, and decrease the risk of severe Covid-19 and mortality. It represents the most cost-effective approach and should be largely promoted and incorporated in everyday practice. This is a booster that is needed at this unprecedented time and that may actually work to mitigate Covid-19.”