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Going green reduces COVID risk: Plant-based diets slash risk by as much as 41%

In a recent study published within the journal BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, researchers investigated the associations between dietary decisions and severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS‑CoV‑2) infection risk. Their evaluation of 424 omnivores and 278 vegetarians revealed that individuals selecting plant-based diets are as much as 39% less prone to contract a SARS‑CoV‑2 infection when put next to their meat-eating counterparts. Moreover, plant-based diets were related to higher body mass indices (BMIs) and lower obesity and obese prevalence, highlighting its advantages. This study, due to this fact, presents plant-based diets as having a potentially protective effect against COVID-19, revealing a behavioral change which will retard the pandemic’s spread.



Study: Vegetarian and plant-based diets related to lower incidence of COVID-19. Image Credit: Alkema Natalia / Shutterstock

A case for avoiding meat

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic represents one among the worst pandemics in human history, with a death toll surpassing 7 million since its discovery in late 2019. In the USA of America (US) alone, greater than 1 million individuals have died of the disease. Compared, the Spanish influenza of 1918, America’s second-worst pandemic, claimed roughly 675,000 lives. The COVID-19-associated infrastructure, medical, and economic breakdown stays unprecedented globally.

The event of COVID-19 vaccines in tandem with government-enforced social distancing policies has significantly hampered and even reversed the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the pathogen behind COVID-19. Unfortunately, the emergence of novel virus subvariants presents a drawback in vaccination efforts, with the opportunity of a pandemic resurgence still real. Drawing from the success of social distancing restrictions, recent research has explored the merits of modifiable behaviors in combatting COVID-19. Food regimen is one among these behaviors.

Reports from Okinawa, Japan, and sub-Saharan Africa reveal that these regions, already noteworthy for the longevity of their inhabitants, suffered far fewer SARS-CoV-2 infections and mortality in comparison with their counterparts from North Africa, North America, and Europe. Despite their substantially differing socioeconomic and geopolitical contexts, a commonality between Okinawa and sub-Saharan Africa is their predominant weight loss program – most residents of those regions follow a vegetarian lifestyle.

Elucidating dietary decisions’ impacts and potential advantages within the fight against COVID-19 would help provide consumers and medical practitioners with the knowledge needed to safeguard themselves against the continued pandemic.

Concerning the study

In the current study, researchers investigated the associations between weight loss program type (omnivorous or vegetarian) and SARS-CoV-2 infection risk. Their study cohort comprised 702 adult Brazilian volunteers recruited as an element of the Pandora Project, a prospective study on dietary influences on health. Data was collected via online questionnaires and included information on sociodemographics, lifestyle (including smoking), medical history, and eating behaviors (dietary decisions and habits).

Based on their eating behaviors, participants were divided into omnivorous (consumption of animal-origin food greater than 3 times per week) and plant-based (including flexitarians, lacto-ovo-vegetarians, strict-vegetarians, and vegans). The Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE) methodology was used to categorise age, education, ethnicity, and religion. Smoking status was evaluated using the Surveillance of Chronic Diseases by Telephone Survey (Vigitel) questionnaire.

Physical activity metrics were collected and analyzed using the International Physical Activity Questionnaire-Short Form (IPAQ), which comprises leisure, domestic, transportation, and work contexts. Self-reported weight and height data was used to calculate all participants’ body mass indices (BMIs). Along with the presence and severity of prior SARS-CoV-2 infections, medical history data was used to investigate vaccination status and chronic diseases (cancers, cardiovascular diseases), all of whom comprised statistical covariates.

Statistical analyses included Fisher’s exact test and chi-squared (Χ2) tests to elucidate differences in categorical variables and regression models (logistic and linear) to check findings between cases (plant-based diets) and controls (omnivores). Demographic and medical data were used to correct these models where relevant.

Study findings

Of the 723 individuals initially recruited into the study, 21 were found to supply incongruent information and were excluded from data evaluation. Of the remaining 702, 424 were omnivorous, and 278 followed plant-based diets. Regression analyses found no significant differences between these groups based on age, sex, vaccination status, smoking, or degree of isolation. This confirms the validity of between-group comparisons based on dietary selection because the treatment of interest.

Overall health analyses revealed the omnivores group to depict significantly higher BMI, incidences of obese and obesity, and total pre-existing medical conditions when put next to the plant-based cohort. Physical activity was higher within the plant-based group than their omnivorous counterparts. Together, these results suggest that individuals subscribing to plant-based dietary regimes are more health-conscious and healthier overall than their meat-eating counterparts.

Crude and multivariable logistic regression analyses revealed that plant-based diets had a 38% lower incidence rate than meat-based diets, with demographic corrections revealing a 39-41% lower infection risk in the previous cohort. Nonetheless, following infection contraction, dietary decisions weren’t found to have a statistically significant effect on disease severity.

Conclusions

The current study reveals the protective effect of meat-based weight loss program abstinence against COVID-19 infections. Comparisons between 424 omnivorous and 278 plant-based weight loss program consumers depicted that the latter is overall the healthier selection, leading to substantially lower BMI, lower risk of obese and obesity, and lower chronic disease prevalence. The highlight of this study is that vegetarians are at 39-41% less risk from COVID-19 than their meat-eating counterparts. Nonetheless, the plant-based weight loss program doesn’t moreover reduce disease severity once the infection is contracted.

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