Dietary patterns and COVID-19

A recent study showed that following plant-based diets with low amounts of red meat & sugar, lowers the odds of COVID-19 severity
A recent study showed that following plant-based diets with low amounts of red meat & sugar, lowers the odds of COVID-19 severity

Plant-based diets were gaining popularity even before the COVID-19 pandemic due to individual health or environmental concerns. A plant-based diet is based on foods derived primarily from plants and includes a high intake of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, and seeds. These are naturally rich in fiber, vitamins A, C, and E and minerals like iron, potassium, and magnesium. These nutrients that are derived from natural foods are important for a healthy immune system and for an effective immune response towards viral infections. Plant-based diets not only support our immune system but are also proven to prevent and lower the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers. They also help with weight loss as whole foods and plant foods take longer to digest and contain fiber, which keeps you feeling fuller for longer.

A recent study published in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention and Health showed that participants who followed plant-based diets comprising of vegetables, legumes, and nuts, with lower amounts of red and processed meat, sugar-sweetened beverages, and alcohol had 73% lower odds of moderate to severe COVID-19 disease severity. Compared to these individuals, participants who followed a low carbohydrate, high protein diet, had greater odds of moderate to severe COVID-19 disease severity.

Types of plant-based diets

Plant-based diets are naturally low in calories and are nutrient dense. It requires cutting down on animal meat, not necessarily avoiding animal products entirely. It is also important to avoid processed foods like white bread, cakes, and sugary drinks. There are several types of plant-based diets to choose from depending on personal preferences.

Vegetarian Diet (Lacto-ovo): Includes dairy foods (such as milk and cheese), eggs, wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds but abstains entirely from any animal product like meat, chicken, or seafood.
Pescatarian Diet: A plant-based diet which includes fish or shellfish but not meat, chicken, or other animal products.
Flexitarian or Semi-vegetarian: A diet primarily filled with plant foods, eggs and dairy but with some meat, chicken, fish or other seafood occasionally.
Vegan Diet: Includes only plant foods (wholegrains, fruits, vegetables, lentils, beans, nuts, and seeds) but abstains from all animal derived products including milk, eggs and foods with ingredients from animal sources. Some vegans avoid honey too.

Tips to follow a plant-based diet

Getting started on a plant- based diet does not need to be an added stress for any family. Follow these simple tips to shift to a plant-based diet:
  • Include wholegrains for breakfast. For example whole-wheat bread with fresh tomatoes and avocado or oatmeal with banana and dates. Try this bulgur recipe with your family for breakfast.
  • Include a lot of greens each day like spinach and other leafy vegetables as either a stir-fry or as a salad. Try this kale recipe.
  • Always have a salad with meals. This is an easy way to include a lot of vegetables along with beans, tofu, or green peas. Try this rainbow salad.
  • Eat some fruit as a dessert. A piece of juicy watermelon or a crisp apple is a good alternative to a high calorie sugar-sweetened dessert. Try this easy fruit dessert.
  • Include minimal amounts of poultry and red meat.
  • Try and plan meals without meat at least once a week. Swap it for plant derived proteins like tofu, legumes, and beans. Try this bean burger for a change.
  • Try and include healthy fats in the diet like olive oil, nuts, nut butters, seeds, and avocado.

Adopting a predominantly plant-based dietary pattern can benefit overall health and longevity of an individual. Along with following a healthy dietary pattern, during the COVID-19 pandemic continue to follow the official public health recommendations of handwashing, wearing a mask, and maintaining physical distance when in public.

Sources: BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health | Harvard Health Blog | British Dietetic Association
Contributors: Ms. Anupama Jithesh, Dr. Sohaila Cheema, Dr. Amit Abraham and Dr. Karima Chaabna
Editing: Mr. John Hayward