I am a fitness enthusiast. I also stick to a nutrient-rich, “clean” diet, which means I minimize my sugar consumption and eat a lot of whole foods to optimize my health.
You may wonder how effective such a diet and exercise plan would be in fighting COVID-19, as some – with no evidence – have suggested that vaccination may be unnecessary if a detailed wellness lifestyle is followed closely.
As a researcher with nutrition for nearly 20 years, I have watched with great interest the response of the wellness community to the COVID-19 vaccines. While proper nutrition can have positive effects on the immune system, it is not reasonable to expect that diet alone will protect against a potentially life-threatening virus.
My lab group at the University of Memphis studies the effects of foods and isolated nutrients on human health. In January 2009 we conducted an initial study on a strict vegan diet. We accepted 43 men and women who were allowed to eat as much vegetable food as they wanted but only drank water for 21 days.
The results showed improvements in many variables related to cardiometabolic health, such as blood cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin, and C-reactive protein – a protein that increases in response to inflammation. Since then, we have completed several human and animal nutrition studies using this nutrition program.
Power of food
The research in my laboratory has resulted in around 200 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts and book chapters that deal specifically with nutrients and exercise and the interaction between these two variables. The results of our work and those of other scientists clearly demonstrate the power of food to have a positive impact on health.
For many people, a positive change in eating habits leads to such improvements in clinically relevant levels such as blood cholesterol and glucose that doctors can sometimes reduce or eliminate certain drugs used to treat high cholesterol and diabetes. In other cases, these measures improve, but the patient still needs medication to control their disease. This tells us that in some situations, a good nutritional program just isn’t enough to meet the body’s challenges.
Although certain natural products have been discussed as treatment options for COVID-19, little attention has been paid to whole foods as a protective measure. I find this regrettable, and I believe that strengthening our immune systems with the aim of fighting COVID-19 and other viral infections is of great importance. And the evidence tells us that a nutritious diet, regular exercise, and getting enough sleep can all contribute to optimal immune function.
With regard to food intake, a recently published study of a sample of health workers infected with COVID-19 found that those who followed a plant-based or pescatarian diet were 73% and 59% less likely to have moderate to severe, respectively had severe COVID-19. compared to those who did not follow these diets. While interesting, it is important to remember that these results represent an association rather than a causal effect.
While diets can help people strengthen their immune systems against COVID-19, diet is just one important aspect. Other variables are also of great concern, including managing stress, taking supplements, physical distancing, and wearing masks.
But to be clear, all of these elements should be viewed as tools in the toolbox to fight COVID-19 – not as replacements for potentially life-saving vaccines.
Vaccines save lives
I find it interesting that almost all parents know the importance of getting their children vaccinated against serious diseases like mumps, measles and chickenpox. They don’t expect certain foods or a nourishing environment to do the job of a vaccine.
However, when it comes to COVID-19, that thought process is abandoned by some who believe that a healthy lifestyle will replace the vaccine without seriously considering what the vaccine actually protects from the virus – something that a healthy lifestyle alone is just can’t.
When considering whether to get the COVID-19 vaccine, there are a few things to keep in mind: All medications come with risks, including things that seem harmless like aspirin. Hormonal birth control – a method used by millions of women every month – is believed to be responsible for an estimated 300-400 deaths annually in the United States. The same goes for cosmetic surgery, botox injections, and other elective procedures.
Many people are willing to accept the small risks in these cases, but not with those involving the COVID-19 vaccines – although the risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19 is the small risk of serious adverse events from the vaccinations predominate by far.
No lifestyle approach, including strict adherence to a holistic, nutrient-rich diet – vegan, plant-based, or otherwise – will provide complete protection from COVID-19. The vaccines aren’t perfect either; Breakthrough infections do occur in some cases, although the vaccines continue to offer robust protection against serious illness and death.
I encourage people to do everything in their power to naturally improve the health and functioning of their immune systems. Then seriously consider what additional protection a vaccination against COVID-19 offers. When people make decisions based on the latest science – which is constantly evolving – rather than emotions and misinformation, the decision should become much clearer.
This article was republished by The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit source of news, analysis, and commentary from academic experts, under a Creative Commons license.