As ever higher numbers of Americans sicken and succumb to covid-19, health is on everybody’s mind. Whether you are vegan, vegetarian, or curious about whether a change in diet is right for you (or someone you care about), you might want to know more about how to protect your health.
Vegan and vegetarian diets are largely considered to promote health more than the typical American diet with its emphasis on meat, eggs, and dairy products. Yet, as we have seen, people who test positive for the novel coronavirus are more likely to have bad outcomes if they also have certain pre-existing conditions, such as heart disease, lung ailments, hypertension, diabetes, or severe obesity—that is, individuals with a body mass index of over 40 (compared with a BMI of 19 to 25, which is considered healthy). A diet rich in fruits, vegetables, and legumes has been found, in study after study, to protect people from most of those illnesses.
I am not a doctor or nurse–I don’t even play one on television–so I encourage you to do your own reading, and to address your personal situation with your primary care provider.
If you’re already vegetarian or vegan, congratulations! You are probably eating much better than the typical U.S. citizen. But all vegan diets are not created equal. After all, you could avoid animal products on a diet of Oreos and potato chips.
To optimize health, Dr. Hooman Yaghoobzadeh (@DrYaghoobzadeh), a cardiologist with the Cornell Medical Center in New York City, recommends focusing on whole foods and limiting processed foods. Whole foods are those that you can imagine appearing in nature. Oranges grow on trees, blueberries form on bushes, tomatoes hang from plants, and beans grow on vines, but you don’t see granola bars sprouting from the earth or lasagna noodles hanging from trees. The act of processing foods generally adds sugar and takes away fiber. As our nation’s sugar intake has grown steadily to about 50 kilograms (110 pounds) per person per year, so has the rate of obesity, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently surpassed 40 percent of U.S. adults.
When you do eat processed foods, favor those that have a low carbohydrate-to-fiber ratio, which you can determine by dividing the number of grams of carbohydrates in a food by the number of grams of fiber. Look at the nutrition label on a box of cereal or a package of cookies and you will find, usually a little more than halfway down, in bold print, a listing for grams of carbohydrate per serving. Right below that number is the amount of fiber. Nature Valley Apple Crisp granola bars have a carb-to-fiber ratio of 29 to 3, or almost 10. By contrast, frozen peas—which are hardly processed at all—have a ratio of 12 to 4, or just 3. When you choose processed foods, aim for a ratio of no more than 7 or 8.
You don’t have to throw out all your processed foods, but try to balance them with less-processed foods. If you’re cooking up a bowl of pasta, toss in some frozen peas or broccoli for the last minute of cooking, and coat with a little olive oil instead of a store-bought sauce.
One of the health benefits of a plant-based diet is fiber. High-fiber diets protect against heart attack, colorectal cancer, and other gastrointestinal disorders. Fiber also aids intestinal motility, so that food moves through your digestive system more quickly. If you eat a lot of meat, which contains zero fiber, it stays in your gut for longer periods. Meat that sits around too long—whether in your gut or on the kitchen counter–turns rancid.
If you aren’t yet vegetarian or vegan, or if you’re worried about the health of someone who still eats animals, take comfort in knowing that healing can begin with a single meal. The documentary The Game Changers shows how a single meat-heavy meal can impair blood flow as compared with the body’s response to a meal of plant foods. Dr. Neal Barnard of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (www.pcrm.org) has found that within weeks or even days of starting a vegan diet, patients experience a reduction in arthritis pain, menstrual cramps, and (in diabetics) a need for insulin. Dr. Dean Ornish states in the film that people who eat a lot of animal products are 75 percent more likely to die prematurely of any cause than those who favor plant foods. With the novel coronavirus potentially lurking around the next turn in the grocery store, wouldn’t it be comforting to know that you and those you love are consuming the most protective diet you can?
Of course a vegan can be obese, get cancer, develop diabetes, or have high blood pressure, but all of these conditions are exacerbated by a diet in which beef, chicken, milk, and cheese form the focus.
Hypertension is a risk factor for heart attacks and stroke. Many doctors treat it with medication, but it can also be controlled by exercise and a change in diet. A meatless diet can reduce blood pressure by 10 or 11 points, the same as a high dose of medication. If you or someone you know has been advised to limit salt intake, you should know that the top three sources of dietary sodium, according to Dr. Yaghoobzadeh, are chicken, cheese, and bread (not necessarily in that order).
Vegans, of course, also face the risk of contracting the coronavirus that is spreading like fire through our cities and towns. But if you consume a range of fruits and vegetables on a regular basis—foods bearing a whole palette of colors—your body is more likely to have the nutrients it needs to support immunity. Please pay attention to what you put into your body. An animal’s life—or your own–could depend on it.