Healthy eating is good for the immune system – but a COVID-19 vaccine is better
I am passionate about fitness. I also adhere to a nutrient-dense “clean” eating plan, which means I minimize my sugar intake and eat lots of whole foods in an effort to optimize my health.
You might be wondering how effective such a diet and exercise program would be in fighting COVID-19, as some have suggested – without supporting evidence – that vaccination may be unnecessary if a detailed wellness lifestyle is closely followed.
As a research scientist who has studied nutrition for almost 20 years, I have watched with great interest the response of the wellness community to COVID-19 vaccines. While eating well can have a positive impact on the immune system, it is unreasonable to expect nutrition alone to defend itself against a potentially deadly virus.
My experience with the science of nutrition
My lab group at the University of Memphis is studying the effect of isolated foods and nutrients on human health. In January 2009, we conducted a first study on a strict vegan diet. We recruited 43 men and women who were allowed to eat as much plant-based foods as they wanted, but drank only water, for 21 days.
The results demonstrated improvements in many variables related to cardio-metabolic health, such as blood cholesterol, blood pressure, insulin, and C-reactive protein – a protein that increases in response to inflammation. Since then, we have carried out several studies on human and animal nutrition using this diet program.
Research in my lab has resulted in some 200 peer-reviewed scientific manuscripts and book chapters specific to nutrients and exercise, and the interplay between these two variables. The results of our work, as well as those of other scientists, clearly demonstrate the power of food on health.
For many people, a positive change in eating habits results in such improvement in clinically relevant measures like blood cholesterol and blood sugar 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 his disease. This tells us that in some situations a good nutrition program is just not enough to overcome the challenges of the body.
Nutrition and other approaches to wellness matter
Although some natural products have been discussed as treatments for COVID-19, little emphasis has been placed on whole food nutrition as a protective measure. I think it’s unfortunate, and I think strengthening our immune system in order to fight COVID-19 and other viral infections is of great importance. And the evidence tells us that a nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep can all contribute to optimal immune function.
Regarding nutritional intake, a recently published study using a sample of healthcare workers who contracted COVID-19 noted that those who followed a plant-based or pescatarian diet had 73% and 59% less, respectively. moderate to severe COVID-19 risk, compared to those who did not follow these diets. While interesting, it’s important to remember that these findings represent an association rather than a causal effect.
While people can use nutrition to boost their immune systems against COVID-19, diet is only an important consideration. Other variables are also very important, including stress management, nutritional supplements, physical distancing and wearing a mask.
But to be clear, all of these should be seen as tools in the toolkit to help fight COVID-19 – not a replacement for potentially life-saving vaccines.
Vaccines aren’t perfect, but they save lives
I find it interesting that almost all parents understand the importance of having their children immunized against serious illnesses like mumps, measles and chickenpox. They don’t expect certain foods or a stimulating environment to do the job of a vaccine.
Yet when it comes to COVID-19, that thought process is being abandoned by some who believe that a healthy lifestyle will substitute for the vaccine, without seriously considering what the vaccine actually does to provide protection against the virus – somehow. something a healthy lifestyle alone simply cannot do.
When considering whether or not to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, consider the following: All medications carry risks, including things seemingly as benign as aspirin. Hormonal contraception – used by millions of women each month – is thought to cause about 300 to 400 deaths per year in the United States. The same goes for cosmetic surgery, Botox injections, and other elective procedures.
Many people are willing to accept the low risks in these cases, but not with those involving COVID-19 vaccines – despite the fact that the risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19 far outweighs the low. risk of serious adverse events due to the vaccine.
No lifestyle approach, including strict adherence to a holistic, nutrient-dense diet – vegan, vegan, or otherwise – provides complete protection against COVID-19. Vaccines aren’t perfect either; breakthrough infections do occur in some cases, although vaccines continue to offer strong protection against serious illness and death.
I encourage people to do whatever they can to improve the health and function of their immune systems, naturally. Then, think seriously about the additional protection that would be obtained from the COVID-19 vaccination. When people make decisions based on the latest scientific knowledge – which is constantly evolving – rather than emotions and misinformation, the decision should become much clearer.
Richard Bloomer, Dean of the College of Health Sciences, University of Memphis
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.