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This One Diet Can Protect Your Immune System, New Study Says

Eating more plant-based foods may help protect you from severe COVID-19 symptoms.
MEDICALLY REVIEWED Clipboard BY Deena Adimoolam, MD

As the highly infectious Delta variant continues to spread and make a devastating impact on Americans' lives, it's even more vital now to provide your immune system with the tools it needs to keep your body safe.

While getting the COVID-19 vaccination is the absolute best way to prevent yourself from enduring severe symptoms of the Delta variant, eating a diet rich in foods that support your immune system is just one extra step you can take (in addition to the vaccine) to help you combat the disease.

RELATED: Here's Exactly How a Plant-Based Diet Can Protect You From Disease, According to Experts

A recent study published in the BMJ found that those who follow a plant-based diet and/or a pescatarian diet have lower odds of experiencing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 symptoms. The study looked at healthcare workers, who had substantial exposure to COVID-19, from six countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Participants were asked to complete an online survey from July 17 to July 25, 2020, that covered demographic characteristics, dietary information, and COVID-19 outcomes.

"Compared to participants who reported following plant-based diets, those who reported following 'low carbohydrate, high protein diets' had greater odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19," Hyunju Kim, Ph.D., assistant scientist at Johns Hopkins, and the first author of the study tells Eat This, Not That!

healthy vegetable plant based bowl tomatoes carrots avocado brown rice cucumbers leafy greens

However, one major limitation of this study is that the majority of participants were male physicians, so the findings would also have to be replicated in female healthcare workers to be more conclusive. Still, eating a plant-based diet has been shown to provide a host of benefits to both your immune system and overall health.

"This study tells us that diet does indeed play a role in COVID-19 infections, including the severity of symptoms and duration of illness," says Sharon Palmer, M.S., R.D.N, also known as The Plant-Powered Dietitian. "While no studies have previously looked at this, we do know that research has shown a strong link between nutrition and immunity, which includes not only the quality of diet people consume, but also if they have health factors related to poor diet, such as obesity, type 2 diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease."

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More specifically, the study identified that those who followed a plant-based diet had a 73% lower chance of suffering from moderate-to-severe COVID-19 compared to those who didn't eat a plant-based diet. The findings didn't surprise Palmer, adding that we already know certain nutrients including vitamins A, C, and E as well as phytochemicals and fiber, may be significant for supporting immune health.

"These nutrients are rich in whole plant foods, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, pulses, nuts, and seeds. In addition, vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids may be protective, and they are rich in pescatarian diets," she says. "In contrast, Western-style eating patterns—high in red meat, processed meat, and refined grains—are linked with [being] pro-inflammatory and [have] other negative effects."

Kim says she and her colleagues also found that supplementation of specific nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E decreased the risk of respiratory infections, such as the common cold, and even shortened the duration of these types of ailments. Keep in mind, there's more research that needs to be done.

"Our results need to be confirmed in prospective studies, studies with a larger sample size of individuals with COVID-19, studies with detailed macronutrient and micronutrient intake data, and objective markers, [or] biomarkers such as plasma micronutrient levels," says Kim.

In the interim, why not test out some more plant-based recipes to help support your immune system and overall well-being?

Cheyenne Buckingham
Cheyenne Buckingham is the former news editor of Eat This, Not That! Read more about Cheyenne
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