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Can plant-based diets help you fight covid?

A new study published in the journal BMJ Nutrition suggests they could. Lounge speaks to doctors and nutritionists to find out.

Even if we removed covid from the situation, there is considerable merit in eating a diet rich in plant-derived foods, say nutritionists
Even if we removed covid from the situation, there is considerable merit in eating a diet rich in plant-derived foods, say nutritionists (istock)

After she turned 40, Deepa Palaniappan, the founder of Shambala Resort and Spa in Yercaud, began thinking more seriously about her health. “Your body can’t take what it did in the 20s and 30s,” she says. So last year, via a yoga group, she got in touch with a nutritionist who focused on plant-based meals. “She put me on a 21-day eating regime that really worked for me,” says Palaniappan, who began consuming a lot of fruits, millets, salads and soups as part of this diet. It left her feeling very good, she says. “So, I started making it my lifestyle.”

Plant-based diets have been getting increasingly more popular over the years, as more and more people turn to them for multiple reasons: health, animal welfare or because they fear climate change. Now there may be yet another reason to turn to a plant-based diet: it could help you beat covid, says a new study, published in the BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, an open-access journal published by the British Medical Journal in association with the NNEdPro Global Centre for Nutrition and Health (Cambridge).

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According to this study, which conducted a web-based survey on healthcare workers from six countries with substantial exposure to covid-19 patients, “plant-based diets or pescatarian diets were associated with lower odds of moderate-to-severe COVID-19.” Moreover, while the odds of pescatarians’ chance of developing a severe illness from the virus was lower by 59%, people who ate plant-based did even better—their chance of developing severe covid was 73% lower.

Admittedly, the study is far from perfect: the sample size was relatively small, for starters, only 2,884 healthcare workers. Also, since the diets were self-reported, the actual quality of the 11 diets selected wasn’t thoroughly investigated. However, nutritionists, overall, agree that there may be something to it. “Covid increases the inflammation in the body,” says Aakriti Arora, a Delhi-based nutritionist. Inflammation, a normal immunological response to injury or invading pathogens, can become excessive in some covid patients, leading to a more severe infection. Since plant-based diets reduce inflammation in the body, they could benefit people suffering from covid or who have recovered from the condition, she says. Also, in general, plant-based people end up eating more fruits and vegetables than their omnivorous compatriots. “So, they are making healthier choices overall,” believes Arora, which-—in turn—helps build general immunity.

Going beyond covid

So, what exactly do you mean by a plant-based diet? Though plant-based is often used interchangeably with the word vegan, and indeed the vegan diet is structured wholly around foods derived from plants, it is not the same thing. “There is a subtle difference, “points out nutrition and wellness consultant Sheela Krishnaswamy. Like a vegan diet, plant-based diets include plenty of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, grains and legumes, but it doesn’t wholly eschew animal products. “A vegan diet doesn’t include any animal products or byproducts whatsoever; on a plant-based diet, if the person desires, they can consume small amounts of animal foods,” says the Bengaluru-based nutritionist.

Even if we removed covid from the situation, there is considerable merit in eating a diet rich in plant-derived foods. Plant-based diets provide more fibre and are rich in vitamins A, C, E and minerals like potassium and magnesium, says Dr Amit Khandeparkar, who heads healthcare nutrition science at Danone. “Research suggests that consuming plant-based diets improves gut health, improves immunity by reducing inflammation, lowers the risk of heart diseases, type 2 diabetes and even some cancers as compared to diets high on animal products,” says Khandeparkar. He adds that the diet could also benefit people aspiring to maintain a healthy weight.

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While certainly, the “best” diet for you is dependent on numerous factors, including lifestyle, preferences, fitness regime and so on, eating more plant-based is always a good thing. “Generally, your overall health improves,” says Bengaluru-based Vijay Shankar Murthy, who has been chiefly plant-based since 2002. He gave up meat entirely back then because he had a heart condition; in 2011-12, he introduced a little back in his diet, primarily lean meat, continuing to eat plant-based for the rest of his meals. “I have largely enjoyed the experience,” he says.

Plan your plants

Before you jump on the plant-based bandwagon, do remember that plant-based isn’t necessarily synonymous with healthy. “It is common for people to convert to a plant-based eating system and still eat unhealthily,” points out Arora. Lots of plant-based foods, including Oreos, potato chips, maida alcohol, sugar, aren’t things you want to include regularly in your diet, after all. “Even if we are eating a plant-based diet, we must make a conscious decision to consume more fruits, vegetables, fibre—focusing on our micronutrients and our macronutrients,” she adds.

This, believes Delhi-based nutritionist Kavita Devgan, is especially important in plant-based diets as they often throw up food challenges. “It can be a tricky trade-off nutritionally,” she says, pointing out that one can get seriously short-charged on nutrients like protein, calcium, iron, zinc, vitamin D, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids. “You have to eat smart and focus on the above nutrients to make your meals complete,” she says.

For instance, plant foods tend to offer incomplete protein, as, unlike animal foods, they do not contain all the nine essential amino acids our body needs to function effectively. “Combine plant foods wisely to cover all essential amino acids,” says Devgan, offering an example. Legumes (cooked dried beans, dried peas, and lentils) are low in sulfur-containing amino acids (such as methionine), but they are high in another amino acid called lysine. Grains are just the opposite. “So by eating both together, you can get them both,” she says, adding that combinations like beans or dal and rice are ideal for getting all your protein needs covered. It would help if you also watched out for Vitamin B12 and D: plant-based diets are notoriously deficient in both. “A lot of plant-based foods are fortified with these vitamins,” says Arora. “Or you could just take a supplement.”

If planned well, however, plant-based diets are highly sustainable, believes Palaniappan. She continues to build most of her meals around plant-based foods, consciously eating many more vegetables, staying off animal products and experimenting with more plant-based recipes. “My hormones started balancing out, my skin cleared out, and I felt a lot of positive energy,” she says, adding that she finds this lifestyle very sustainable. And while she does occasionally eat a few pieces of meat over the weekend, if she goes out, she loves the way plant-based food makes her feel. “You look forward to a beautiful meal; relish every mouthful of that meal and feel full and well-nourished by the end of it,” says Palaniappan. “People underestimate how food affects the mind. The more energetic you are, the more positive you feel. “

Suggestions for a plant-based diet

One-day meal plan for an average individual with no medical history:

Kcal 1600-1800

Early Morning - Glass of warm water with 2 tbsp lemon juice and a pinch of cinnamon

Breakfast - 1 vegetable uttapam + coconut chutney

Mid-Morning Snack - 1 fruit of your choice + 1 glass coconut water

Lunch - 1 bowl lentils + I bowl rice + salad/ 1 bowl vegetable curry+2 multigrain rotis+salad

Evening Snack - Tea/Coffee + 1 portion of roasted makhana/foxnuts

Dinner - Chilly garlic tofu curry with a portion of veg quinoa or veg brown rice+salad

(by Akriti Arora)

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