Holiday Overindulgence: Just How Bad Is Rich Food For The Immune System?
With the holidays right around the corner, many people may be gearing up to indulge in all the rich, sweet, tasty holiday foods that are on the menu at this time of year. From sweet desserts and candy to the large meal spread on the holiday dinner table, there is no shortage of overindulgence during festive season. But while all these foods may taste great, there are some downsides to this increased consumption of less-than-healthy offerings.
Take the immune system, which is your first line of defense against disease and illness. What you put in your body and the way the immune system functions go hand in hand. When you aren’t feeding your body the things it needs (or when you’re overloading it with things it doesn’t), immune function can go awry. But how exactly does all this tasty fare – fat, sugar, carbs, alcohol – affect your immunity? Just how bad is rich food for the immune system?
How does a high-fat diet affect the immune system?
There are different types of fats that you can consume: healthy fats and not-so-healthy fats. When it comes to the typical holiday fare, the not-so-healthy fats are typically the star of the show. Eggnog, cheese logs, buttered rolls, and Christmas hams are just a few examples of the high-fat offerings most people will find at their holiday dinner. These foods can affect how the immune system works in a couple of ways.
First off, high-fat foods can cause systemic inflammation, which is widespread throughout the entire body. When this happens, it prompts the immune system to activate even though there isn’t a pathogen for it to fight off. This can lead to further inflammation in various tissues, as well as gut dysbiosis, which is an imbalance in your gut bacteria.
The result of this is a weakened immune function because of the way the immune system relies on a balanced gut and proper inflammatory responses.
How does a diet high in sugar affect the immune system?
Sugary holiday snacks are many people’s favorite part of the season. If you overindulge your sweet tooth, though, immunity can be negatively affected. When you eat high-sugar snacks or foods in excess, you can experience a surge or spike in blood sugar levels. That spike then suppresses the immune system, leaving you vulnerable to illness or disease.
To be more specific: too much sugar affects white blood cells, which are also referred to as killer cells. When there is too much sugar in the body, these killer cells are not able to destroy bacteria or viruses that enter your body. Even just a small amount of indulgence in sugary snacks or foods can cause problems with your immune system that last about five hours.
While that may not seem like a lot, it adds up when you consider that you are typically not just overindulging for one day over the holidays, but for several days in a row.
How does alcohol affect the immune system?
The holidays are prime time for increased alcohol intake. The social aspect alone often prompts people who may not drink much throughout the year to take up the holiday spirit, so to speak. Alcohol has the ability to weaken the immune response because of the way it affects the cells tasked with neutralizing pathogens.
Every immune cell in the body can be affected as well, making overconsumption of alcohol an even bigger danger. For example, there are immune cells in the airways that help prevent pathogens from entering the lungs, where they can cause infection. When alcohol is consumed, it can damage these airway immune cells to the point of dysfunction. Damaged cells are no longer able to fight off viruses or other pathogens, and thus, viruses have no roadblocks when it comes to entering the lungs.
Similarly to high-fat foods, alcohol can destroy microorganisms in the gut that are designed to help the immune system do its job, and when the gut bacteria is imbalanced, immune function is hindered greatly. Lastly, alcohol causes widespread inflammation, and as mentioned above, inflammation can severely and negatively impact immunity.
What does excessive consumption of carbs do to the immune system?
When you consume carbohydrates, they are converted into glucose – a type of sugar that cells use for energy. If you eat too many carbohydrates (think baked goods, white bread, and even stuffing because of the breadcrumbs used), that glucose causes a spike in your blood sugar and insulin levels. When this happens, the body is prompted to produce inflammatory proteins that harm the immune system.
How do you eat healthy during the holiday season?
While all your favorite foods may be on the naughty list when it comes to immune health, that doesn’t mean you need to skip them altogether. You just have to eat smart this holiday season.
This means that foods and drinks high in sugar, fat, carbs, or alcohol should be limited and combined with whole foods that will give your immune system what it needs to stay functioning at its best. For example, if you can’t go without your rum and eggnog, opt to skip the sugary desserts instead. It’s all about moderation, even during the holidays.
Many holiday dishes can also be made healthier by swapping out a few ingredients. For example, if you typically make a high-fat or cheesy potato casserole, opt for a lighter version using a mix of your favorite vegetables instead. Going back to eggnog, you could also make a homemade version that will be far less fat-filled and just as delicious as the store-bought kind.
To achieve balance during the holiday season, it’s all about making smart food choices and giving yourself the allowance to eat what you love without overindulging.