One thing about COVID-19 is clear: It’s not going away any time soon. And while experts are learning more about this virus every day, studies show that the majority of people who are hospitalized with COVID-19 have more than one underlying health condition. The three conditions that top the list in order of prevalence, according to a study of patients in New York City? High blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

While those conditions might be the common straw between COVID-19 patients, there’s also a common thread between them, namely that your risk of them can be significantly reduced if you’re eating a plant-based diet. “Let’s make clear that nobody’s saying that if you eat a plant-based diet you won’t get COVID-19,” says Monica Aggarwal, M.D., director of Integrative Cardiology and Prevention at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “Yet eating a plant-based diet can help decrease your risk for these factors that increase your risk for COVID-19.”

The connection between COVID-19 and diabetes, obesity, high blood pressure

Many questions have yet to be answered about COVID-19, including what the long-term ramifications are if you get it and whether having antibodies for it will protect you from getting it again. But there’s another unknown: What is it about these conditions that seem to drive COVID-19 symptoms to be serious?

While nobody can say why with certainty, experts know that these three factors are intertwined. “Obesity is a risk factor for high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes, and obesity itself is a risk factor for a more complicated course with COVID-19, as is diabetes with hypertension,” says Vanita Rahman, M.D., an internal medicine doctor with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, adding that because these conditions are more prevalent in African Americans, Blacks are being hit harder than others. 

Emerging evidence suggests that the virus may bind to adipocytes or fat cells in the body. “That could be one reason obese individuals are getting more COVID-19 than other individuals, but we don’t know for sure,” Aggarwal says. Inflammation, especially in and around the heart, might also increase the risk of complications from COVID-19 among individuals with these three conditions.

A plant-based diet helps protect against obesity, diabetes, and hypertension

Enter a plant-based diet, which has proven benefits for all three conditions, thanks to the combination of nutrients in plants. “Plants provide a medley of nutrient-dense foods versus the standard Western diet which is calorically rich and nutritionally poor,” Rahman says.

Start first with weight. Thanks to the Adventist Health Study, researchers know that people who eat a plant-based diet have a lower body mass index (BMI) than those who eat a non-vegetarian diet, and the more animal foods in the diet, the higher the BMI. Animal-based foods are high in calories, saturated fat, and protein– “more protein than people need,” Rahman says–all of which contributes to excess weight. 

Eating plant-based fills your stomach with healthy foods that have a low-calorie density, meaning that they contain fewer calories per pound, Aggarwal says. Because the foods are lower in calories, you’ll eat more and fill up with healthy fiber which helps you lose weight naturally. Research also suggests that eating plant-based increases the amount of energy you burn, and while it’s small, it adds up, Rahman says.

In relation to blood sugar, “because you’ll be cutting processed food, refined carbohydrates and saturated fat (from animal products), your blood sugar will stabilize,” Aggarwal says. Whole plant-based foods also tend to be lower on the glycemic index, which will help keep blood sugar more stable throughout the day. (Spikes in blood sugar activate insulin and signal the body to store fat.)

What about heart health? Studies show that a plant-strong diet improves heart health and lowers blood pressure. There are numerous explanations but one is that by eating more plants, vegetables in particular, you’re consuming more foods that are rich in nitrates, which converts into nitric oxide in your body. “Nitric oxide helps open blood vessels, which improves blood flow and lowers blood pressure,” Aggarwal says, adding that this is one reason to eat more vegetables than fruits.

The veggies at the top of her list: Dark greens like kale, spinach, chard, turnip greens, arugula, and escarole. Bonus? “Not only are they rich in nutrients, they’re also loaded with potassium.” Potassium helps lower blood pressure by kicking sodium, which raises blood pressure, out of your body.

So how close to a 100 percent plant-only diet do you need to go to get to benefit? Although Aggarwal says that’s still an unknown, the closer you can get to 100 percent, the better, but every little bit helps in getting healthier and warding off the the three major conditions common in individuals with COVID-19. 

Want to learn more about how a plant-based diet can help blood pressure, diabetes and obesity? Sign up for a free eight-week course with Rahman as an instructor as well as Dr. Neal Barnard, offered by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The class starts on June 16, but you can jump in anytime. Sign up at www.pcrm.org/NutritionClass