More than a year into the global pandemic, there’s a lot we still don’t know about COVID-19. But here’s one thing we do know: People who are obese, have hypertension, cardiovascular disease, or diabetes, fare far worse if they become infected. They are much more likely to be hospitalized. And they are far more likely to die. In fact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 94% of COVID-19 deaths are linked to other “comorbidities.” Only 6% list COVID-19 as the sole cause of death.
Since many of these comorbidities are largely preventable (and often reversible) with a whole foods, plant-based diet, it is not an exaggeration to say that the standard American diet has turbocharged the pandemic.
The United States has less than 5% of the world’s population, but in the first year of the pandemic, had 20% of the world’s reported COVID-19 deaths. How could the world’s wealthiest country, with arguably the most advanced (and certainly the most expensive) healthcare system on the planet, have fared so poorly?
The sober reality is that the United States has experienced the most deaths by far of any country in the world from COVID-19. The mortality rate from COVID-19 in the US is about 40% higher than in Europe. Is it a coincidence that the obesity rate in the US is also about 40% higher than in Europe? Or is it a clue to something we urgently need to understand?
The Nutrition-COVID Connection
While a number of different factors contribute to the development of most of the major chronic diseases of our times, perhaps the most powerful is nutrition. There’s a reason they are also referred to as “lifestyle diseases.” Eating a nutrient-poor diet is known to contribute to a higher risk for chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity. Chronic disease makes your body work harder and brings with it a higher susceptibility to health problems — making COVID-19 significantly more dangerous.
Studies clearly show the see-saw relationship between plant-eating and disease: the more fruits and vegetables you consume daily, the lower your risk of the chronic diseases that make COVID-19 far more dangerous. When researchers from Imperial College, London, analyzed data from 95 studies encompassing over two million subjects, they determined that up to 10 servings a day of fruits or vegetables provide the maximum protection from chronic disease and premature death. Meanwhile, USDA food consumption surveys find that the average American consumes less than three servings a day of fruits and vegetables.
Your Body Needs the Right Kind of Fuel
Think about how you fuel your car. If you don’t give your car enough gas — or the right kind of gas — it doesn’t run well, if at all. Imagine if owners of cars with diesel engines used gasoline just because it was more convenient. Do you know what would happen? I didn’t, but I looked into it. I discovered that it would cause serious engine damage because gasoline is a solvent and diesel fuel is a lubricant. Using the wrong kind of fuel would destroy the fuel system, cause shock wave damage to sensitive parts of the engine, and produce clouds of black smoke belching from the exhaust pipe.
Food is the daily fuel for your body. Are you feeding it well? Or are you setting it up to be susceptible to disease? Are you nourishing your cells, organs, and systems? Or are you corroding and stressing them to the breaking point?
COVID-19’s Link to Lifestyle Diseases
Metabolic syndrome, largely fueled by poor nutrition, impairs the immune system and is a critical underlying factor for heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and obesity-related cancers. This is a perfect storm for whole-body inflammation to thrive. Add COVID-19 to the mix, and the result can be an overwhelming and potentially life-threatening cascade of inflammatory responses.
We’re closing businesses and preventing people from seeing their loved ones in order to stop the spread of the virus. But why aren’t we also talking more about strengthening our bodies’ natural defenses through healthy living? After all, eating well protects not only against this virus but every other infectious and chronic disease as well.
More attention needs to be paid to nutrition and what food and nutrients can help keep your body healthy and free of excess inflammation and chronic disease. This was important before we had a pandemic.
But it’s even more important now.
In February 2021, a study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that almost ⅔ of COVID-19 hospitalizations are attributable to four preexisting cardiometabolic conditions: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease.
Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, a cardiologist and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University was one of the lead authors of the study. “It’s a sad fact,” he said when the study was published, “that this disease has been around for a whole year with millions dead and tens of millions hospitalized worldwide, and we haven’t addressed one of the major ways of preventing such severe outcomes… If individuals exercised a little more, and ate a bit more healthfully, we would see improvements in diabetes and hypertension in just a few weeks. We should be shouting this from the rooftops…”
Why would eating more healthfully make so much difference? The standard American diet is full of foods and food-like products that increase the risk of and perpetuate chronic disease, inflammation, and oxidative stress. All of this can make COVID-19 infections more dangerous. And make deaths more likely. Some of the worst offenders contain large amounts of saturated fat and omega 6-rich oils, refined carbohydrates, sodium, and factory-farmed animal products.
For example, the standard American diet (SAD indeed!) is filled with these pro-inflammatory foods:
- Fast food (burgers, fries, chicken nuggets, milkshakes, etc.)
- Ultra-processed foods (potato chips, cookies, packaged baked goods, frozen dinners, etc.)
- Meat, especially processed meats (cold cuts, sausage, hot dogs, etc.)
- Dairy products (milk, ice cream, cheese, etc.)
- Sugar-sweetened beverages (soda, energy drinks, etc.)
- Alcohol, especially when consumed in excess
In addition to minimizing or avoiding the foods above, the World Health Organization emphasizes the importance of drinking an abundance of water to stay hydrated. As well as switching to healthier fat sources, eating out less, and eating more fresh and unprocessed foods.
Foods That May Help With COVID-19 Outcomes
So what helps with COVID-19 outcomes? While there is no single food or natural remedy that has been clinically proven to prevent COVID-19 infections, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some that help.
In fact, there are many foods that are already known to strengthen the immune system and fight disease. A number of these are currently being studied for their ability to reduce the incidence and severity of COVID-19 infections.
The summary is simple and profound, and will be no surprise to long-time Food Revolution Network members: Plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and seeds have been shown to reduce the risk of the very chronic diseases that are so closely associated with bad outcomes from COVID-19.
Specifically, researchers are looking into compounds unique to these plant-based foods that may have a specific benefit to COVID-19 outcomes.
Some research has found that several compounds found in ginger bind strongly to a COVID-19 enzyme in a way that may inhibit the virus. While that may seem surprising, most antiviral drugs contain raw materials derived from medicinal plants like ginger that are essential to their effectiveness.
The primary active compound in turmeric, curcumin, has been shown to have a potent binding capacity to the main COVID-19 enzyme. And it may be useful in pharmaceutical developments for the virus. Curcumin acts as a protease inhibitor, preventing the virus from replicating. It also potentially helps prevent its entrance in the first place. Curcumin already has powerful and well-documented anti-inflammatory properties. In fact, the power of curcumin is so strong that some scientists suggest it be considered for a clinical trial against COVID-19 infection.
3. Onions and Garlic
Allium vegetables contain a compound called allicin, which has also shown antiviral activity. Allicin appears to boost immune cells and repress pro-inflammatory cytokines and whole-body inflammation, which could help prevent and reduce the severity of COVID-19 infections. Existing research shows that allicin-containing supplements can prevent severe attacks from the common cold virus. While more research for COVID-19 is needed, onions and garlic already provide a host of known health benefits. So there’s no need to wait for scientific COVID-19 certainty to add them to your diet now. At the very least, it will help you enforce social distancing!
4. Citrus Fruits
Citrus fruits, like oranges, lemons, limes, and grapefruit, contain high amounts of vitamin C, a known immune-enhancing antioxidant. They’re also rich in hesperidin, a flavonoid shown to bind to key proteins of the COVID-19 virus and potentially block infection. Clinical trials using hesperidin are already taking place.
5. Cruciferous Vegetables
The profound health benefits of cruciferous veggies, like broccoli, kale, and cauliflower, are attributed in part to their sulforaphane content. Sulforaphane is a sulfur-rich compound that helps reduce inflammation and facilitate repair in the body. It can activate a compound called NRF2 that can be employed against the COVID-19 virus. Cruciferous veggies also contain an antioxidant called glutathione. Glutathione has been studied as a way to block cytokine storm syndrome and respiratory distress in patients with COVID-19 pneumonia. For more on the extraordinary health benefits of sulforaphane, click here.
While most studies on the impact of specific foods on COVID-19 infection are too early to be conclusive, the benefits of these foods to your overall health are already well documented.
Ginger, turmeric, onions, garlic, and cruciferous vegetables can all make a major contribution to your health.
Specific Nutrients Being Studied in Relation to COVID-19
What helps with COVID-19 outcomes when it comes to specific nutrients? In addition to the foods above, there are several nutrients being studied for their potential to help prevent and treat COVID-19. At a minimum, getting the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for these nutrients is thought to have a role in supporting immune function. And in some cases, taking more may have therapeutic benefits, too.
1. Omega-3 Fatty Acids
Found in fish and algae, as well as chia and flax seeds, omega-3s (EPA and DHA) may help reduce inflammatory markers and boost immunity. They increase the function of neutrophils, which are the body’s first responders to infection. They may also help prevent heart-related complications from severe COVID-19 infections. Several studies are currently in progress, including the use of EPA and intravenous omega-3 supplementation aimed at resolving deadly cytokine storms.
2. Vitamin C
An essential vitamin and well-known antioxidant, vitamin C is highly concentrated not just in citrus fruits, but in many fruits and vegetables, including bell peppers and broccoli. As it reduces inflammation and oxidative stress, vitamin C has been spotlighted over the past year for its potential to alleviate COVID-19 complications. Both injections and oral vitamin C have been associated with improved outcomes and recovery from the infection. Several clinical trials examining best therapeutic practices are currently underway. For more on the immune system benefits of vitamin C, click here.
3. Vitamin D
Not only is vitamin D a key player in everyday immunity, but there’s also a strong correlation between low vitamin D levels and higher rates of COVID-19 risk and mortality. In one study, hospitalized patients with COVID-19 who were given vitamin D saw reduced severity in their condition. Many clinical trials examining this relationship and best practices for using vitamin D are currently ongoing. While there aren’t many foods that naturally contain vitamin D, it can be found in fortified plant milks, UV-treated mushrooms, and most reliably through supplementation. Get the whole story on vitamin D here.
4. Vitamin E
Vitamin E is found naturally in nuts and seeds and is known to have immune-enhancing effects. Low levels of vitamin E have been observed in pregnant women with COVID-19, in conjunction with more oxidative stress and worsened perinatal outcomes, suggesting the importance of this vitamin in combating the infection.
Zinc is found in some animal products and in plant-based foods like beans, peas, lentils, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. It’s also often supplemented to help reduce the duration of the common cold due to its role in boosting immunity. It’s currently being considered as a prophylactic or adjunct therapy for COVID-19, with at least 12 clinical trials underway. Data shows that many COVID-19 patients have zinc deficiency. And that this is associated with prolonged hospital stays, more complications, and increased mortality.
6. Vitamin A
Vitamin A (retinol, or retinoic acid) is found in mango, watermelon, cantaloupe, sweet potato, carrots, and raw spinach. Researchers have noted that when COVID-19 patients experience a cytokine storm (one of the primary factors in COVID-19 deaths), they often have low levels of vitamin A in their blood. Megadoses of vitamin A are being considered as a potential way to support a healthier and more balanced immune response.
Brazil nuts are among the best sources of selenium (just one nut can meet your daily needs!), an important mineral and antioxidant for your immune system. One study found that selenium status was significantly higher in samples from surviving COVID-19 patients compared with non-survivors. This suggests that selenium may have an important part to play in reducing the severity of COVID-19’s impact.
Some studies have found that people taking melatonin have significantly lower odds of developing COVID-19, and are far less likely to die of it. In October 2020, a study at Columbia University found that intubated patients had better rates of survival if they received melatonin. When then-President Trump was flown to Walter Reed Medical Center for COVID-19 treatment, his doctors prescribed — in addition to other experimental therapies — melatonin.
Again, research on these individual nutrients is ongoing. But based on what we know now, it seems like a good idea to get plenty of them in your diet, and to consider supplementation if necessary. For more on supplements that even super healthy eaters may want to consider taking, click here.
Support your immune system while indulging in plant-based goodness. Choose from a satisfying vitamin A and fiber-packed breakfast with the Pumpkin Baked Oatmeal. Or, a dish rich in immune-supporting minerals that can be enjoyed by the whole family with the Pineapple Rice. Or, a flavorful dressing that packs a lot of nutrient power with the Ginger Turmeric Dressing. Here’s to whole plant foods for health!
The antioxidant vitamin A is crucial to immune health. Beta-carotene is the plant form of vitamin A, which our bodies convert to its active form. Can you guess what’s high in beta-carotene? If you’re thinking about pumpkin, you’re right! Beta-carotene is also what gives pumpkin its beautiful color. In addition to the nutrient-dense squash, oatmeal is also packed with minerals like selenium. And it’s especially high in fiber, which contributes to a healthy gut, where almost 70% of the immune system lives. Add some chia seeds or walnuts for an omega-3 fatty acid boost!
Pineapple Rice is so simple to make that it might be hard to imagine it’s actually packed with immune-supporting nutrition! Brown rice offers fiber and selenium; red peppers are packed with vitamin C; carrots bring the beta-carotene; onions provide prebiotic fiber, and peas and tofu are great sources of plant-powered protein. Add some leafy greens and you have yourself a completely nourishing (and tasty!) meal.
Ginger and turmeric are powerhouses in the world of immune-supporting spices. They both have compounds specific only to them (gingerol and curcumin, respectively) that play a part in many health remedies. Tahini, which serves at the base in place of oil, provides selenium and zinc, two minerals essential for a robust immune system. Make a batch early in the week so you have it to pour on salads, grain bowls, grilled tofu, and steamed veggies.
Healthy Eating Serves You for Life
Especially in the time of a pandemic, we all want an immune system that can aggressively deal with real threats without overreacting. And a healthy diet, full of all the compounds your immune system needs to function well, can make a world of difference. This approach can save lives during a pandemic, and well beyond.
Tell us in the comments:
- Have you ever changed your diet and noticed positive benefits to your immune health?
- Are there changes you could make to your diet to better support your immunity?
- What are some of your favorite ways to enjoy the foods or nutrients described in this article?
- Does this article help you understand what helps with COVID-19 outcomes?
Feature image: iStock.com/gilaxia