People who eat vegetarian meals even some of the time may be less likely to develop COVID-19 infections than their counterparts who have meat more than three times a week, a new study suggests.
For the study, researchers examined data from dietary questionnaires completed by 372 people who had COVID-19 infections and 330 individuals who didn’t. Compared with participants who frequently ate meat, vegetarians were 39 percent less likely to experience COVID-19 infections, according to study results published January 9 in BMJ Nutrition, Prevention, and Health.
This may be because of several compounds in plants that can boost the immune system and prevent infections, says the lead study author, Julio Cesar Acosta-Navarro, MD, PhD, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at the University of São Paulo in Brazil.
“Plant-based dietary patterns are rich in antioxidants, phytosterols, and polyphenols, which positively affect several cell types implicated in immune function and exhibit direct antiviral properties,” Dr. Acosta-Navarro says.
Lower Chronic Disease Risk for Vegetarians
Beyond this, vegetarians also have a lower risk of several chronic diseases that can make people more susceptible to COVID-19 infections, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and certain cancers, Acosta-Navarro adds. In the study, meat eaters were significantly more likely to have multiple chronic health issues and to have limited physical activity, factors associated with an increased risk of COVID-19, Acosta-Navarro notes.
But eating a predominantly plant-based diet was still associated with a lower risk of COVID-19 infections even after researchers accounted for factors such as weight, preexisting medical conditions, and activity levels.
For people who did get COVID-19 infections, their eating habits didn’t appear to influence the duration or severity of their illness, the study also found.
The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how specific eating habits might directly impact the odds of getting COVID-19. One limitation of the analysis is that it relied on participants to accurately recall and report what they ate, and it’s possible some people provided inaccurate information.
Another drawback is that the study may have been too small to detect meaningful differences in COVID-19 infection risk based on whether people were strict vegetarians or ate meat some of the time, says Brie Turner-McGrievy, PhD, RD, a professor and deputy director of the TecHealth Center at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
“It would be great if future studies had larger sample sizes and looked at different plant-based eating styles,” says Dr. Turner-McGrievy, who wasn’t involved in the new study.
How to Cut Back on Meat
It still makes sense, however, for people who consume a lot of meat to consider cutting back, even if they aren’t ready to commit to a completely vegetarian diet, Turner-McGrievy says.
“Start with meals that are plant-based that you already know that you like,” Turner-McGrievy says. “Think spaghetti and marinara sauce, black bean burritos, and Asian stir-fried vegetables. Then think about other meals you like and how they might be made plant-based.”
This might mean, for example, swapping a veggie burger for a meat burger, or making chili with beans and lentils instead of beef, she suggests. It could also mean trying out some local vegan or vegetarian restaurants or trying meatless menu options at places you already go — like a BK Veggie Burger at Burger King, Sofritas at Chipotle, or a Bean Burrito at Taco Bell.
Don’t be shy about getting help if you’re not sure how to start or how to stick with this new way of eating, Turner-McGrievy says. “Find an online support group of people transitioning to plant-based foods, find a local vegetarian meetup, or hire an RDN who specializes in plant-based eating to guide you.”