Diet and Covid: The Latest News, and Recipe for Butter Beans with Garlic and Rosemary


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It’s not exactly surprising that food full of vitamins, minerals, and fibre would be more help in fighting a deadly virus than something that has had its structure knocked for six in a factory and then stuck back together with salt, sugar, fat, and chemicals, but the news from the ZOE Covid-19 research team, headed by Tim Spector, that people who ate a massively plant-based diet were 10% less likely to catch Covid and 40% less likely to need treatment if they did was still pretty staggering.

They don’t actually say that my lentil salads and roast red peppers could save your life but am confidently awaiting my Nobel Prize.  

Anyway, the magic bullet is to up your 5-a-day to 9-or-10-a-day, and it’s properly magic: it works regardless of how fat, ill, old or poor you are. At least, according to data from the million-odd people they looked at.

And you might think it’s all the vitamins in real food that make the difference – and they certainly help – but the really crucial thing is all the fibre: without it, the microbiome can’t function properly.  

In case you are wondering what the microbiome is (unlikely, it’s all the rage), I will explain:

The microbiome is a teeming mass of trillions of microbes that live in the bowel.  It weighs about the same as the human brain. At least it should do.  But for much of the population, the brain in question would be that of an undersized sparrow, because so many have taken to feeding themselves on ultra-processed foods. * 

*The word food denotes the fact that you can put it in your mouth, swallow it, and not die.  At least not immediately.   It is not intended to indicate that it constitutes some form of nutrition. 

This is not a case of the microbiome going on strike at the culinary outrage.  Nor does it have political or ecological objections to the human exploitation and environmental degradation that go into its production and packaging. 

It is the fact that with all the fibre gone, everything gets digested in the stomach, and there is nothing left to feed the microbes waiting patiently in the bowel. They do not like this. Worse than that, they either die or turn nasty.

This is a pity, because it turns out that this mass of microbes is all that stands between us and a miserably fat and disease-filled life.  In particular, an abundance of diverse microbes reduces inflammation – which apparently causes pretty much every single disease, including some mental illness – and fights infections. Like Covid-19.  

So microbes rock, and to get yours into Covid-fighting form, pile up your plate three times a day with as much fruit, veg, and pulses as you can fit. And this very simple dish of butterbeans is very happy on a breakfast, lunch, or dinner plate.

Butter Beans with Garlic and Rosemary

Serves 6

Practically Pointless

I absolutely love this dish: it’s incredibly simple, but the garlic, rosemary, salt and olive oil work perfectly with the creamy sweetness of the beans. I have eaten it every day for lunch this week. If you haven’t got time to soak and cook the beans from scratch, open a tin but add some crushed coriander and cardamom seeds.

500g butter beans

A teaspoon each of peppercorns, and coriander and cardamom seeds


A couple of sprigs of rosemary, very finely chopped

3 – 4 cloves of garlic, crushed

3 tablespoons olive oil

Soak the beans overnight with a teaspoon of bicarbonate of soda.

Put in a large saucepan and cover with plenty of water and the whole spices.

Boil for about an hour, or until really well cooked.  You want them creamy inside, not al dente.

When they are cooked, turn off the heat and add a good teaspoon of salt to the water and stir well. You may need more – there needs to be enough salt in the water for it to taste good. Let the beans cool in the water for a while before draining.

Meanwhile, take the tiniest saucepan you can find (so the small amount of oil is deep), pour in the oil, and add the garlic and rosemary. Heat gently until it sizzles – but don’t let it sizzle for more than a few seconds; otherwise the garlic gets bitter. Pour it over the warm beans and mix well, adding extra salt if necessary.