Although metabolic disorders such as obesity and type 2 diabetes have been tied to an increased risk of COVID-19, as well as an increased risk of severe symptoms once infected, the impact of diet on these risks is uncertain.
Now, a recent study, published in the journal ‘Gut’ and led by Harvard Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) found that people whose diets were based on healthy plant-based foods had a lower risk of developing severe COVID-19.
“Previous reports suggest that poor nutrition is a common feature among groups disproportionately affected by the pandemic, but data on the association between diet and COVID-19 risk and severity are lacking,” said lead author Jordi Merino.
The beneficial effects of diet on COVID-19 risk seemed especially relevant in people living in areas of high socioeconomic deprivation.
To their research, Merino and his colleagues examined data on 592,571 volunteers of the smartphone-based COVID-19 Symptom Study. Participants lived in the UK and the US, and they were recruited from March 24, 2020, and followed until December 2, 2020.
At the start of the study, participants answered a questionnaire regarding their food habits before the pandemic. A healthy Plant-BasedDiet Score, which emphasises healthy plant foods including fruits and vegetables, was used to assess diet quality.
COVID-19 was discovered in 31,831 participants during the follow-up period. Individuals in the highest quartile of the diet score had a 9% lower chance of developing COVID-19 and a 41% lower risk of having severe COVID-19 when compared to those in the lowest quartile.
“These findings were consistent across a range of sensitivity analysis accounting for other healthy behaviors, social determinants of health and community virus transmission rates,” said Merino.
“Although we cannot emphasize enough the importance of getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in crowded indoor settings, our study suggests that individuals can also potentially reduce their risk of getting COVID-19 or having poor outcomes by paying attention to their diet,” said co-senior author Andrew Chan.
The researchers also discovered a synergistic association between poor diet and increased socioeconomic deprivation and COVID-19 risk that was greater than the sum of each factor’s risk alone.
“Our models estimate that nearly a third of COVID-19 cases would have been prevented if one of two exposures–diet or deprivation–were not present,” said Merino.
The findings also show that public health interventions that promote access to healthy diets and address social determinants of health may assist to lessen the COVID-19 pandemic’s burden.
“Our findings are a call to governments and stakeholders to prioritize healthy diets and wellbeing with impactful policies, otherwise we risk losing decades of economic progress and a substantial increase in health disparities,” said Merino.
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