There's nothing new about prevention being better than cure when it comes to our health. In fact, the phrase is commonly attributed to the Dutch philosopher Desiderius Erasmus back in around 1500. Surely it makes most sense to take such good care of our health that we don't get sick in the first place, not rush to treat illness with all manner of drugs and medications once we do become unwell.
The first significant study measuring the impact of diet on the likelihood of contracting COVID has been released and, according to figures, those of us who thrive on a plant based diet are considerably less likely to contract severe COVID-19.
Research published in this months British Medical Journal reveals that out of 2884 front-line healthcare workers from six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, UK, and USA - individuals who ate a plant-based or pescatarian diet high in vegetables, legumes and nuts, and lower in poultry and red and processed meats, had lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19.
- Vegetarians are 73% less likely to be hit by COVID
- Pescatarians (plant-based + fish) are 59% less likely to be hit by COVID
The survey offered six dietary tick boxes which include red and white meats:
- Whole food diet
- Keto diet
- Mediterranean diet
- Paleolithic diet
- Low fat diet
- Low carb diet and high protein diet
Three dietary tick boxes which omitted red and white meats:
- Plant-based/vegan diet
- Vegetarian diet
- Pescatarian diet
- 'Other' was also made an option
Of those who reported COVID illness, only 41 stated they were following a plant-based diet, while another 46 were pescatarian. The remaining 481 had all been on diets which included the consumption of animals.
Understanding the important correlation between dietary patterns and COVID-19 related illness, could help to open our thinking of the role of nutrition in viral illnesses and disease prevention in general.
How Our Immune System Protects Us
Our immune system is the first and most important line of defense when it comes to protecting us from Coronavirus. Most of the time we don't really think too deeply about our immune system and how it works - it's just sort of there in the background doing a very important job! It only becomes vital once we're exposed to an infectious agent and at that stage there are four important functions our immune system performs to enable it to host an effective defence:
- It creates a barrier to prevent pathogens from entering the body
- It identifies pathogens if they breach a barrier
- It works to eliminate pathogens once they've invaded
- It generates an immunological memory to help protect us from the same attack in the future
There are a number of factors that play an important role in how well these functions work. Some of them we don't have much control over, such as ageing, sex, genetics and medical history. However, there are plenty of choices we can make right now which directly impact our immune health.
Factors including smoking, alcohol, lack of rest, psychological stress and poor nutrition or lifestyle choices all play a very important part when it comes to immunity, and these are all things we can change.
Importance of Plant-Based Prevention
We understand the general health principles of consuming our five a day, and getting plenty of antioxidants through fresh fruit and vegetables is crucial, but why is a vegan diet so good at preventing COVID? Consuming mostly plant-based foods has been proven to offer a diet extremely rich in nutrients - especially phytochemicals.
On the whole, plant-based nutrients are thought to play an extremely supportive part in looking after our immune system. They produce antibodies and reduce oxidative stress.
Fruit and vegetables are great sources of vitamins A, C and E, which have been shown as important to decrease the risk of respiratory infections, such as the common cold and pneumonia. It also seems that for those following a vegan diet who are unlucky enough to fall ill, eating a diet rich in these particular vitamins can shorten the duration of breathing related illness and hasten recovery.
A number of vitamins and trace elements have been demonstrated to have key roles in supporting the human immune system and reducing risk of infections. These include:
- Vitamin A
- Vitamin B6
- Vitamin B12
- Vitamin C
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin E
Zinc and Selenium may be particularly vital elements to factor into COVID prevention. Selenium's well documented role in supporting our immunity proves it could be a useful tool in our preventative arsenal. If you're not a fan of taking vitamin pills, just five brazil nuts each day will provide your recommended intake of selenium whilst lentils, chickpeas, beans, tofu, cashew nuts, chia seeds, ground linseed, hemp seeds, pumpkin seeds, kale, dried apricots and figs, raisins and quinoa offer fantastic sources of iron.
Good Gut Bacteria Boosts Immunity
You've probably heard me herald the importance of good gut bacteria endlessly when it comes to skin disease! Well, it's just as vital when it comes to taking general care of our immune system and preventing viral infections such as COVID.
Our gut is our digestive tract. It runs from our mouth down to our bottom. Seventy percent of our immune system resides in our gut, so it's an important factor when it comes to immunity. Trillions of bacteria exist in our digestive tract and if we can boost the good ones they will take good care of us in return.
Our gut bacteria forms a line of defence against harmful pathogens, but lots of things can disrupt this important barrier. Poor lifestyle choices, stress, antibiotics and other medication can all deplete the good stuff. However, evidence suggests that nourishing our gut with live, desirable bacteria through eating fermented foods or taking a good quality probiotic, contributes positively to maintenance of our important gastrointestinal barrier.
Should I Go Vegan to Prevent Covid?
Even before this research was published, the World Health Organization (WHO) already recommended we strengthen our immune systems during the pandemic. They suggest eating fresh, unprocessed foods, such as vegetables, legumes, and whole grains but according to the Centres of Disease Control and Prevention
If you've been thinking about switching to a more plant-based regime for a while, this might be the final nudge you need to take that extra step towards a vegan diet. As a vegan myself, I can only speak positively about the incredible impact a plant-based diet has had on my overall health.
Plant-based foods provide me with all the vitamins and nutrients I need. I have so much energy, my iron levels are great and most importantly I feel fantastic!
If you're a little overwhelmed at the prospect of going fully plant-based, it's still important to ensure you're getting plenty of plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds at every meal. Slowly transitioning to a pescatarian diet could work well if you're not quite ready to dive in at the vegan deep end just yet. I'd recommend opting for wild caught, sustainable, low mercury fish wherever possible.
Every step you take towards including more plant-based ingredients in your meals each day is a positive one. There's plenty of work still to be done it seems to encourage the 'prevention over cure' principle, but research like this can only help encourage the world to become a healthier, kinder, more compassionate place.