A vegan or plant-based diet may not prevent a person from developing COVID-19, but it can help support a healthy immune system. This in turn can help prevent SARS-CoV-2 infection and reduce the risk of severe symptoms.
People should keep in mind that there is no direct evidence to support a link between a plant-based or vegan diet and protection against COVID-19 or other serious illnesses.
That said, plant-based diets can also reduce a person’s risk for obesity and chronic disease. These are conditions that tend to worsen the outcome of COVID-19.
This article explores plant-based diets and their health benefits in relation to COVID-19 and beyond. It also looks at how a vegan diet can reduce the risk factors for the more severe effects of COVID-19.
There is no specific diet that lowers a person’s risk of developing COVID-19.
The World Health Organization (WHO) advises people to eat a balanced diet to strengthen their immune system during the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes eating fresh, raw foods, such as vegetables, legumes, and whole grains.
The WHO also recommends avoiding the consumption of sugar, fat and salt, and limiting the consumption of red meat to 1-2 times a week, and poultry to 2-3 times a week. They also suggest consuming no more than 160g of meat and beans a day.
That said, it is important to note that eating a plant-based diet and identifying as vegan are not strictly the same thing. The term “plant-based” refers only to diet, while veganism includes other factors.
People who identify as vegans oppose the exploitation or killing of animals for food, clothing or any other reason. However, some people who identify as vegan can eat mostly processed foods, which in themselves as a diet plan are not beneficial to health.
In contrast, people who follow a plant-based diet eat mostly or exclusively plant foods. People can have a diet consisting of only or mostly whole freshly prepared foods. They may choose this approach for health, environmental or ethical reasons.
It is worth noting that a plant-based diet does not necessarily lead to an improved immune system. A person may follow a plant-based diet and have poor health due to consuming too many processed foods, plant-based alternatives and vegetable fats.
If a person eats mostly processed foods and a few vegetables and fruits and does not supplement essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12, they may oppose the potential benefits of a plant-based diet.
Learn more about B12 foods for vegetarians and vegans here.
In the sections below, we discuss some of the health benefits of plant-based diets and how following them can affect the risk of developing COVID-19.
More vitamins and minerals
A review at British Journal of Nutrition suggests that people with optimal micronutrient levels may be more resilient to COVID-19.
Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals that people get from their diet. Human bodies also produce vitamin D in response to exposure to sunlight.
Plant foods contain many vitamins and minerals essential for a healthy immune system, such as zinc, selenium and vitamins A, C and E. Selenium is a trace mineral that benefits the health of the immune system and cognitive function.
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By switching to a plant-based diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables or by eating more plant-based foods, people will increase their intake of essential minerals and vitamins that support the immune system. This in turn can increase people’s resilience to COVID-19.
Learn more about anti-inflammatory foods here.
Increase in antioxidants and polyphenols
Healthy vegan diets that include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables are rich in antioxidants. These are compounds that fight free radicals and help fight oxidative stress.
Some vitamins and minerals, as well as plant compounds such as polyphenols, act as antioxidants. Polyphenols are present in berries, olives and nuts, among other foods.
According to a 2021 review, studies are currently underway to test whether polyphenols can help prevent or treat viral infections, such as SARS-CoV-2 infections. However, currently, there is no evidence of this.
The authors explain that as people get older, their immune system is less able to fight infections. Researchers refer to this immunological aging as immunosensitivity. Polyphenols can counteract the aging process and reduce inflammation.
The authors of the review suggest that antioxidants may have therapeutic effects. Therefore, a plant-based diet rich in antioxidants and polyphenols can help protect against COVID-19.
Learn more about some of the key foods rich in antioxidants here.
Support for a healthy gut microbiome
According to some research, SARS-CoV-2 alters the gut microbiota, and probiotics and prebiotics can improve immune function in people with a SARS-CoV-2 infection.
Fiber in plant foods provides prebiotics to feed intestinal bacteria.
According to a 2020 review, a plant-based fiber-rich diet may have protected patients with COVID-19 in India. The authors suggest that plant-based foods are likely to enhance an intestinal microbiota capable of eliciting an anti-inflammatory response.
Reduction of obesity and concomitant diseases
Eating a plant-based diet can help people avoid overweight and other health conditions that can worsen their experience with COVID-19 if they develop it.
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People who want to switch to a vegan diet should ensure that they eat fresh whole foods and avoid processed foods and “vegan junk foods”.
With veganism gaining popularity, more and more grocery stores and grocery stores now offer a variety of vegan products.
However, it is important to note that a product that is vegan does not necessarily mean that it is healthy. It is still advisable to check the nutrient density and amounts of vitamins, minerals, fats and added sugars of vegan products that people consider buying.
People will benefit most from choosing fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats and protein sources.
Including a large variety of plant foods and “eating the rainbow” allows people on a plant-based diet to get all the nutrients they need.
However, plant foods do not contain vitamin B12, an essential nutrient needed for red blood cell production and brain function, among others.
This is why it is important for people on a plant-based diet to eat foods fortified with vitamin B12 and preferably take a vitamin B12 supplement. They may also need to supplement omega-3 fatty acids.
People can find numerous resources and recipes online to plan their plant-based meals. They can also consult a registered dietitian or nutritionist.
Learn more about protein-rich plant foods here.
There is no conclusive evidence to suggest that any single diet may lower a person’s risk of developing COVID-19.
However, a plant-based or vegan diet can support a healthy immune system. This in turn can limit the risk of a SARS-CoV-2 infection as well as its serious health complications.
Eating a plant-based diet can also help prevent the development of chronic health conditions that can cause complications or increase the severity of COVID-19 symptoms.
A vegan diet can also help people achieve a moderate weight and prevent obesity, reducing the risk of worse COVID-19 outcomes.
It is worth noting that not all vegan foods are healthy, and people should avoid processed vegan foods and instead choose a diet with whole foods.
People who follow a strict vegan diet should also ensure that they supplement with essential nutrients, such as vitamin B12.