While government and business leaders focus on slowing the spread of COVID-19 through social distancing, masking requirements and vaccination there remains a very potent form of defense that has been largely ignored in most mass media — the quality of our diets.
It was in the early 1980s that Dr. Colin Campbell of Cornell University organized his now famous "China Study” revealing that a diet of whole, plant-based foods (vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and nuts) can create more health than all the pills and procedures of modern medicine combined.
As part of that study, they also looked at viruses, specifically hepatitis B, and found that those individuals who ate the most vegetables, with their attending fiber and plant protein, had the best immunity or antibody production against the disease. Conversely, those consuming more animal foods had fewer antibodies — even those eating a very low amount of animal foods.
Even though there are a large assortment of viral strains out there, with each creating its own unique symptoms, they also share something in common. That is, when they infect a host, like us, our immune system mounts a defense and custom makes an antibody to take out that particular strain of virus. That is what the new mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are seeking to do and this past research reveals that quality nutrition could significantly boost their effectiveness.
We didn’t know for sure, though, until this summer when the British Medical Journal published the first results showing the association between dietary patterns and COVID-19.
The researchers did a case control study of 2,884 front-line physicians and nurses in six countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom and the United States) to evaluate different dietary patterns with the risk of COVID-19 infection, severity and duration. The participants reported what type of diet they had been following during the previous year, and the researchers grouped them into four distinct groups for their analysis: 1) plant-based, 2) plant-based plus fish, 3) baseline or standard and 4) low-carb.
After adjusting for confounders like ethnicity and weight (body mass index) and health behaviors (smoking and physical activity levels), participants who followed plant-based diets had 73% lower odds of moderate-to-severe (fevers, respiratory distress, pneumonia) COVID-19 compared with participants who did not follow such diets.
Adding fish did not help at all but lowered the protection to 59%. In fact, the more meat and animal protein was added to the diet, the worse the protection became, up to the point that those following meat-heavy, low-carb diets (Keto, Paleo, etc.) actually had a 48% greater chance of moderate to severe COVID-19 outcomes. While this was not statistically that much different from the baseline diet, those following such diets still had greater than threefold higher odds of moderate-to severe COVID-19 compared to those eating plant-based diets.
When discussing their results, the researchers noted, “Studies have hypothesized that an unhealthy dietary pattern, such as Western diets which are high in refined sugars, processed foods and red and processed meats, can be pro-inflammatory and have negative health impacts.” And while this may be true, the reality is that the low-carb group was eating the least sugar of all, and yet had the highest risk.
Like Campbell’s studies in China seemed to reveal, those eating more plant foods have the better immunity than those eating more animal-based food. Perhaps this is because plant-based diets are rich in the nutrients, especially phytochemicals (polyphenols, carotenoids), vitamins, minerals and fiber, which have been found to be important for a healthy immune system. Remember, it is these things that play such an important role in the production of antibodies, as Campbell’s work in China showed, as well as the proliferation of white blood cells, and the reduction of oxidative stress and inflammation (which also drives the severity of COVID-19).
We have already seen study after study showing the power of eating more plant-based foods to prevent or reduce the incidence of common Western diseases like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Now it appears to be an amazing help in combating COVID-19 as well.
Just consider that those six countries that participated in the British Medical Journal’s study have together experienced more than 1.2 million deaths with COVID-19. If 73% could have been prevented by plant-based eating that would have been more than 800,000 lives saved.
For the living, it is never too late to reap the benefits. You can begin improving your health at your next meal. Kick-start plans for putting this into practice are free online at nutritionstudies.org, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (pcrm.org) and with apps like Dr. Michael Greger’s Daily Dozen. Check these resources out and begin building up your immunity today.
Thomas Morrison is a fitness coordinator at the Bradley Wellness Center.