Healthy Diet and Lifestyle Reduce Risk and Severity of COVID-19, Studies Find

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Several recent independent news reports highlight a health-oriented approach to COVID-19 that is missing from most news coverage on the pandemic. These reports  highlight how healthy diet and lifestyle can reduce the risk of COVID-19.

A December 2021 Harvard Health article reported on the findings of a study, published by the BMJ’s journal Gut in September 2021, on the connections between healthy diet and COVID-19. The study concluded that diets rich in “healthy plant-based foods was associated with lower risk and severity of COVID-19.” As Harvard Health reported, study participants who reported eating “the most fruits, vegetables, and legumes had a 9% lower risk of getting COVID and a 41% lower risk of developing severe COVID during the study period.” (Noting that the study was “observational” and “doesn’t prove conclusively that a healthy diet prevents COVID,” Harvard Health reported that “getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in indoor settings are still the most important approaches to ward off the disease.”)

Notably, Harvard Health reported, the study found links between COVID,  poor diet, and socioeconomic disadvantages. “If you could remove just one of those factors — diet or disadvantage — we think nearly a third of the COVID-19 cases could have been prevented,” Jordi Merino, the study’s lead author, stated.

A May 2020 Science Daily article reported on a study, conducted at Anglia Ruskin University, which examined the relation between Vitamin D and the prevalence of COVID-19 in twenty European countries. Science Daily quoted Lee Smith, the study’s lead researcher: “Vitamin D has been shown to protect against acute respiratory infections, and older adults, the group most deficient in vitamin D, are also the ones most seriously affected by COVID-19.” As Science Daily noted, based on comments by one of the study’s coauthors, “correlation does not necessarily mean causation” and these findings could be affected by the “different  measures taken by each country to prevent the spread of infection.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that age is “the strongest risk factor for severe COVID-19 outcomes.” People aged 65 years and older “accounted for 81% of U.S. COVID-19 related deaths” in 2020, the CDC noted. As individuals age, their bodies’ abilities to process nutrients declines, meaning they absorb less nutrition from the food they eat. Additionally, the elderly typically live a more sedentary lifestyle. Another high-risk population is individuals who are obese. The CDC also states, “obesity decreases lung capacity and reserve and can make ventilation more difficult”, which is a risk factor for any respiratory illnesses. Obesity also puts people at a higher risk for other health conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, blood that is prone to clot, and lung disease. These other health conditions add to the risk factors for COVID-19.

Global news coverage of COVID-19 has emphasized masks, vaccines, and social distancing as the most concrete actions that people can take to protect themselves (and others) from infection. Changes in health habits are more difficult to establish, and the full benefits may take years to manifest. It’s much more difficult for public health officials to advocate concrete plans to stay healthy because overall health varies significantly from individual to individual. Few news outlets covering the pandemic have acknowledged this challenge.

Source: Heidi Godman, “Harvard Study: Healthy Diet Associated with Lower COVID-19 Risk and Severity,” Harvard Health, December 1, 2021.

Student Researcher: Grace Gallo (Saint Michael’s College)

Faculty Advisor: Rob Williams (Saint Michael’s College)