Can a Low-Fat Diet Really Prevent COVID-19? And What About Eating More Plants? Let’s Look at the Research

Can a Low-Fat Diet Really Prevent COVID-19? And What About Eating More Plants? Let’s Look at the Research

Last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared that the COVID-19 pandemic no longer represented a “global health emergency.” But while the virus appears to be less severe now than when it first emerged in 2020, and we also have multiple vaccines at our disposal, it still has an ongoing presence in society.

For the most part, now, COVID cases are mild, similar to a bad cold or the flu, but they’re still unpleasant. To avoid contracting the virus, washing your hands regularly, wearing a mask when appropriate, and avoiding crowds and poorly ventilated spaces are still recommended, but diet may also play a role, research suggests.

Earlier this year, researchers from the University of California suggested that high-fat diets of any kind, including plant-based diets, may increase the gene expression of the proteins in the body that the COVID-19 virus interacts with.

It’s important to note that this study was not conducted on humans but on mice. Animal tests are highly controversial, largely for ethical reasons. But also because many experts believe that they aren’t always accurate at predicting the same results in humans.

“Both obvious and subtle differences between humans and animals, in terms of our physiology, anatomy, and metabolism, make it difficult to apply data derived from animal studies to human conditions,” notes the American Anti-Vivisection Society, for example.

That said, the University of California research is not alone in suggesting that diet could play a role in reducing the risk of COVID-19.

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Could a plant-based diet help protect against COVID-19?

One study, also published earlier this year in the journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, linked a predominantly plant-based or vegetarian diet with a 39-percent reduction in the odds of COVID-19 infection.

The research, which involved more than 700 adult human beings, noted that eating more vegetables, legumes, and nuts, and reducing the intake of dairy and meat, may reduce infection risk and the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.

“Plant-based dietary patterns are rich in antioxidants, phytosterols, and polyphenols, which positively affect several cell types implicated in the immune function and exhibit direct antiviral properties,” the researchers wrote in the study.

This is in line with advice from the WHO, which advised people to eat two cups of fruit per day, five servings of vegetables, 180 grams of grains, and 160 grams of beans during the pandemic. “For snacks, choose raw vegetables and fresh fruit rather than foods that are high in sugar, fat, or salt,” it advised. The organization did, however, also suggest that people ate meat and dairy, too.

In 2021, another study, published by the scientific journal BMJ Nutrition Prevention & Health, assessed more than 2,880 healthcare workers in six countries and found that those who followed a plant-based diet were 73-percent less likely to experience moderate-to-severe COVID-19 symptoms.

“In six countries, plant-based diets or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19. These dietary patterns may be considered for protection against severe Covid-19,” the study noted.

On top of this, research suggests that diet may also play a role in relieving long COVID symptoms.

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Plants and long COVID-19

While most people who have COVID-19 feel better a week or two after their first symptoms appear, some people end up with symptoms that last much longer, even when they start testing negative for the virus, and this is referred to as long COVID. But some research has found that following a balanced diet, rich in nutritious whole foods, may help individuals to manage their symptoms and potentially improve their mood.

“Plant-based diets also lower inflammation in the body and this can lead to less fatigue, aches, and pains,” Vanita Rahman, MD, DipABLM Clinic Director, Barnard Medical Center, told VegNews last year.

COVID-19, of course, isn’t the only virus that we have to contend with, especially during the colder months of the year. However many experts have also recommended following a plant-based diet to reduce the risk of developing severe colds and flu. Find our guide to eating for cold and flu season here, which was developed with help from a dietitian. 

For more on the health benefits of plant-based diets, read: