Treating COVID with plant-based / Mediterranean diets

Supporters of the Mediterranean diet have long sung the praises and benefits of following this dietary lifestyle. But perhaps even they didn’t know quite how effective it would prove in the fight against Covid-19. 

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A plant based diet is effective in the fight against COVID.A basic definition-based comparison between plant-based vs. the Mediterranean diets

Having a plant-based diet is, as the name suggests, a lifestyle in which the vast majority of your food and energy come from plant-based sources, consisting largely of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, or other plant-derived foods. Having a plant-based diet generally implies a leaning towards primarily or entirely vegan food choices, and focuses on nutrient-rich whole foods, avoiding packaged and processed food.

A Mediterranean diet also includes having a diet that consists primarily of whole grains, legumes fruits and vegetables, but the Mediterranean diet also very heavily emphasizes the inclusion of regular quality “good” (unsaturated and mono-saturated) fats in the diet, especially fish, olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds, etc. As its name suggests, the Mediterranean diet is inspired by the diets of those who live close to the Mediterranean sea, primarily Greece, Italy and surrounding areas. 

COVID-19: The sobering new reality

By March 2021, Covid-19 had reportedly caused more than 125 million cases and 2.8 million deaths throughout 223 countries. Extensive dialogue ensued worldwide, debating the efficacy and practicality of measures instigated to prevent infection, such as mandating mask wearing, enforcing social distancing, requiring home isolation for individuals exposed to or infected with Covid-19, and even the forced closure of schools and businesses, the ramifications of which continue to this day. 

Despite the best efforts of health authorities worldwide, infection rates continued to climb and new strains of the infection continued to appear. With skyrocketing numbers worldwide and the necessity to treat people infected with the virus, the issue of how to avoid all exposure to the virus, is quite unrealistic. The question we should instead be asking is: How can we improve our resilience to be less receptive to infection and bounce back more quickly if we become infected?

Adherents to the Mediterranean diet report lower rates of COVID infection

A study of 5,194 middle-aged university graduates in Spain was conducted to evaluate specifically the effectiveness of following the Mediterranean diet to prevent infection with Covid-19. Several variables were considered and participants with other factors that might sway the results (such as certain lifestyle factors or previous diagnosis of chronic illness) were excluded from the study, in order to compare only participants who could contribute to the evaluation of the effectiveness of the Mediterranean diet in preventing Covid-19 infection. 

Of these 5,194 eligible participants, 122 tested positive for Covid-19 at the time of the study. Participants with intermediate adherence to the Mediterranean diet showed significantly lower odds of developing Covid-19, and those with the highest adherence to the Mediterranean diet exhibited the lowest risk, compared with those who did not follow the Mediterranean diet.  

Followers of plant-based and the Mediterranean diets have the mildest symptoms of Covid-19 

As seen above, people who subscribe to the Mediterranean diet have the lowest rate of Covid infection, proportionate to their adherence to this dietary lifestyle. In a second study spanning 6 countries and nearly 3000 frontline healthcare workers regularly exposed to CovId-19, participants who followed “ ‘plant-based diets’ and ‘plant-based diets or pescatarian diets’ had 73% lower odds of moderate-to-severe Covid-19 severity, respectively, compared with participants who did not follow these diets”. 

Severity of symptoms were evaluated as mild (few to no symptoms), moderate (fever and respiratory symptoms including pneumonia) or severe (especially respiratory distress and low oxygen levels). Incredibly, this study focused exclusively on frontline healthcare workers with high frequency of exposure to Covid-19 infection. Healthcare workers who did not have close proximity of less than 6 feet to their patients or often spent less than 10 minutes with their patients were excluded from this study, in order to evaluate specifically only the healthcare workers who were deemed to have high levels of exposure to Covid-19 infection. 

The fact that even these highly exposed frontline healthcare workers report 73% lower odds of developing moderate-to-severe Covid-19, than their colleagues who did not report following a plant-based or plant-based and pescatarian diets, greatly reinforces the protective qualities of these diets against Covid-19.

Plant-based and Mediterranean diets are recommended for long-term Covid sufferers

In the same way that plant-based and Mediterranean diets show reduced infection rates and severity of Covid-19 symptoms, it’s recommended for sufferers of long-term Covid Syndrome to start following a more plant-based or Mediterranean diet, over a diet heavier in carbohydrates and poultry and red and processed meats. The health and healing benefits of plant-based and Mediterranean diets are suggested both as a means to bolster general wellbeing and to increase resilience to future exposure to Covid-19 and similar infections. 

Where previous schools of thought at times advocated for low fat, low carbohydrate or high protein diets, reliable research consistently reinforces the health benefits of plant-based and the Mediterranean diet. Eating lots of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds, and fish, with generous use of olive oil can only do good for your overall health, enhance your vitality and strengthen you against infection and disease.

References

 Perez-Araluce, R., Martinez-Gonzalez, M. A., Fernández-Lázaro, C. I., Bes-Rastrollo, M., Gea, A., & Carlos, S. (2021). Mediterranean diet and the risk of COVID-19 in the ‘Seguimiento Universidad de Navarra’cohort. Clinical Nutrition.

Kim, H., Rebholz, C. M., Hegde, S., LaFiura, C., Raghavan, M., Lloyd, J. F., … & Seidelmann, S. B. (2021). Plant-based diets, pescatarian diets and COVID-19 severity: a population-based case–control study in six countries. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, 4(1), 257.

Kim H, Rebholz CM, Hegde S, et alPlant-based diets, pescatarian diets and COVID-19 severity: a population-based case–control study in six countriesBMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health 2021;4:doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2021-000272