People have been asking this question since the coronavirus made its appearance: can being plant-based protect you against getting sick? While it cannot immunize you to COVID-19, or to any disease, there is actually good evidence that vegans are in a better position than omnivores when facing this pandemic. Why? Simply because a plant-based diet is strongly tied to a better immune system and to better overall health.
Dr. Charlie Ross, an assistant professor at Western University of Health Sciences, was an emergency room physician for over thirty years. When his wife began eating a plant-based diet eight years ago, he made the change with her for moral support, and he still eats a plant-based diet. He has changed from practicing emergency medicine to practicing lifestyle medicine. For the last seven years he has been instructing his patients to eat a plant-based diet in order to prevent disease. In his words, he wanted to “stop pulling people out of the river who were drowning, and prevent them from ever falling into the river.”
Dr. Ross’s experience is not unique. Farshad Fani Marvasti, MD, an associate professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, said, “Food plays a huge role in your immune system. Plant-based foods have protective phytochemicals, nutrients and antioxidants that keep us healthy and boost our immune system.”
These protective qualities have led some doctors to say that a plant-based diet can decrease the likelihood of developing cancer. Stephen Neabore, MD, a board-certified internist with Barnard Medical Center, also advocates a plant based diet. According to Dr. Neabore, “One study found that people eating large amounts of animal protein have five times the risk of death from diabetes, and four times the risk of death from cancer.”
One of the reasons so many vegans felt they had something relevant to say when COVID-19 became a pandemic is because they had been listening to the opinions of these medical professionals all along. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has endorsed vegetarianism and veganism as a diet which is not only sufficiently nutritious, but also a diet which “may provide health benefits for the prevention and treatment of certain diseases.”
One could take all this to mean that an omnivorous diet is neutral, and a plant-based diet is better. What it actually means is that a plant-based diet is good and an omnivorous diet is unhealthy. Meat-eating is the cause of so many of the conditions that one does not want to have in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and even cancer.
There is, however, a greater way in which plant-based diets protect against COVID-19: it could have prevented it from happening in the first place. Many vegans argue (and many non-vegans admit) that a world in which there is no animal-based food industry is a world in which animal-based diseases could not spread to humans.
While there is no doubt that COVID-19 came from an animal, the question that needs to be answered is: would it still have made its way from animals to humans if humans didn’t eat animals? The answer is both yes and no. A plant-based world would not be a world without zoonotic diseases (diseases transferred from other animals to humans), but it would be a world in which there are significantly fewer zoonotic diseases.
The reason for this is that COVID-19 did not make its way to humans specifically through animal consumption. It is not foodborne. It made its way to humans through the close contact between animals and humans that comes along with animal consumption. A study of zoonotic diseases by the World Health Organization, the World Organization for Animal Health, and the U.N. Food and Agricultural Organization found that the growth of the meat industry is one of the primary avenues through which these diseases are transmitted to humans. The study found that, “agricultural expansion and intensification to meet the increasing demand for animal protein, global travel, trade in domestic or exotic animals, urbanization, and habitat destruction comprise some of the major drivers of zoonotic disease emergence.”
There is much contention about the claim that veganism would prevent or mitigate the present pandemic. While there is overstatement on both sides, there is almost no denying that without the presence of a massive animal-based food industry, the individual and global risk posed by diseases like COVID-19 would be significantly smaller.
Vegans are right to point out, as PETA did with this sign, that COVID-19 may not have jumped to humans if it weren’t for animal consumption. And many who do not practice a plant-based diet are right to wonder whether COVID-19 poses more of a threat to them than it does to those who eat a plant-based diet. In all likelihood, it does.