TUESDAY, Sept. 14, 2021 (HealthDay News) — People who eat plenty of fruits and vegetables may have a somewhat lower risk of COVID-19 than those with unhealthy diets, a new study suggests.
Of more than 590,000 adults surveyed, researchers found that the quarter with the most plant-rich diets had a 9% lower risk of developing COVID-19 than the quarter with the least-healthy diets.
Their risk of severe COVID-19, meanwhile, was 41% lower, according to findings recently published online in the journal Gut.
Experts were quick to stress that healthy eating is no magic immune-booster that will ward off COVID-19.
This doesn’t change any thing. “Get vaccinated,” Dr. Aaron Glatt (infectious disease specialist, spokesman for Infectious Diseases Society of America) said.
Jordi Melino, lead researcher in the study, said that diet should not be considered a substitute for vaccinations or other measures like wearing masks.
Instead, the findings suggest that poor diet quality may be one of the social and economic contributors to COVID-19 risk.
Merino, a researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, said that making healthy food more affordable to low-income Americans could help to ease the burden of the pandemic.
The findings are based on over 592,000 U.S. and British adults who were part of a smartphone survey. They reported on any COVID-19 symptoms they developed and whether they’d tested positive for the disease. A diet questionnaire was also completed to assess their daily intake of different foods.
Merino’s team divided participants into four groups based on their intake of plant foods like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and vegetable oils.
During the study period, there were 31,815 documented cases of COVID-19.
On average, the researchers found, the one-quarter of participants with the most plant-rich diets were slightly less likely to develop COVID-19 than the quarter with diets devoid of fruits and vegetables.
And when they did get sick, their risk of severe COVID (requiring hospitalization and oxygen) was 41% lower. In absolute terms, the rate of severe COVID-19 was 1.6 per 10,000 people per month in the group with the healthiest diets; in the group with the poorest diets, the rate was 2.1 per 10,000 each month.
Of course, Merino said, people with healthy diets may be different in many ways from those with less-healthful eating habits. His team considered factors such as age, race, exercise habits and body weight, as well as whether the residents were in low- or high income areas.
Obesity, for example, is a risk factor for severe COVID-19. And body weight did explain a good portion of the connection between diet and COVID-19 risk, the study found.
The researchers found that diet had a protective effect.
Merino stated that the link was strongest for those who live in economically poor areas. The researchers estimated that if one of those two factors was not present — poor diet or deprivation — almost one-third of COVID-19 cases in the study group could have been prevented.
Glatt warned that it was difficult to distinguish the effects of diet from other factors in people’s lives.
“There are so many variables,” he stated.
People who strive to eat healthfully, Glatt said, are probably careful about their health in general — and protecting themselves against COVID-19, specifically.
The researchers asked respondents about their mask-wearing habits. These responses didn’t explain the diet-COVID connection.
Glatt stated that it was impossible to account all factors, including whether people work from home or use public transport.
Merino highlighted some limitations to the study. While about one-quarter of respondents were age 65 or older, they were fairly healthy as a group — with few reporting chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes.
Plus, Merino said, the survey was done in 2020 — before anyone was vaccinated and before the emergence of the highly contagious Delta variant.
It is not known if a healthy diet could have an additional effect on a person who has been vaccinated or in times of Delta dominance.
Despite these caveats, Merino and Glatt both agreed that eating a lot of whole, plant-based food is a smart idea. People with good nutrition tend to be healthier and more resilient. It’s reasonable to suggest that a healthy lifestyle will be beneficial,” Glatt stated.
The World Health Organization has more on COVID-19 and nutrition.
SOURCES: Jordi Merino, PhD, research associate, Diabetes Unit and Center for Genomic Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, and instructor, medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston; Aaron Glatt, MD, chief, infectious diseases, Mount Sinai South Nassau, Oceanside, N.Y., and spokesman, Infectious Diseases Society of America, Arlington, Va.; Gut, Sept. 6, 2021, online
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