Lifestyle changes may help protect against COVID-19

  • Could eating more vegetables and less processed meat help protect you from a COVID-19 infection? A recent study suggests these two measures offer a modest protective effect against COVID-19.

    Could eating more vegetables and less processed meat help protect you from a COVID-19 infection? A recent study suggests these two measures offer a modest protective effect against COVID-19. stock photo

Updated 8/22/2021 8:35 AM

Can specific lifestyle changes alter susceptibility to COVID-19 infections? One recent medical study suggests that food choices may reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 and, over time, reduce the spread of this illness.

Most chronic illnesses are either the direct result of poor lifestyle choices and can be positively impacted by making better lifestyle choices. Heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, many bowel issues and even autoimmune diseases can be corrected and, for many, cured with changes in diet, exercise, stress reduction and better sleep. When I was a medical student, one of my professors told me that a healthy body is very resistant to illness and disease. One medical study suggests that may be true for COVID-19 also.


A medical study done at Northwestern University Feinberg school of medicine and published in the medical journal Nutrients (June 2021) suggested that increasing vegetables and reducing processed meats resulted in a modest protective effect against COVID-19 infection. It had been well researched that a vegetable-based diet compared to a meat-based diet reduces the risk of many illnesses including heart disease, many cancers, possibly Alzheimer's disease, high blood pressure, irritable bowel disease and diabetes. Vegetables contain many important compounds that humans do not make themselves. A vegetable-rich diet contains antioxidants, vitamins, fiber needed for good bacteria and detoxification as well as carotenoids and flavonoids that are essential for optimal health. Many of these compounds are anti-inflammatory and have antibacterial and antiviral activities. Since most of the immune system resides in the bowels, it is not surprising that food selection is important.

This study surprisingly revealed that drinking two or three cups of coffee per day and being breast fed as a baby also offered some protection against COVID-19. Coffee contains a large number of anti-inflammatory compounds and there is medical research demonstrating a reduction in many markers of inflammation when regularly consuming (in moderation) coffee. It has been demonstrated many times that breast-feeding as an infant "sets" the immune system on a balanced path and this early regulation can have lifelong benefits.

This study also discovered that a diet with even small amounts of processed meats increased the risk of COVID-19 infection. Processed meat is defined as any meat preserved by smoking, curing, salting or addition of chemical preservatives. Americans love meat and almost 400 million tons (1.2 tons for every man, woman and child in the U.S.) of meat was consumed in 2020. Almost 25 percent of meat consumed in the US is processed. One of my favorite foods is real barbecue. However, the increased risk of illnesses associated with the smoking and curing processes forces me to limit my consumption to only a few times per year.

Eating vegetables and drinking more coffee is not a substitute for vaccines, social distancing and the proper wearing of masks. However, every little but helps and there may be other health benefits derived from reducing processed meat consumption. Stay safe.

• Dr. Patrick Massey is medical director of complementary and alternative medicine at Alexian Brothers Hospital Network, and president of ALT-MED Medical and Physical Therapy, 1544 Nerge Road, Elk Grove Village.

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