How Eating Red Meat Affects The Immune System
Human beings have been eating meat for millions of years. However, in the times of the hunter and gatherer, meat was far less accessible than it is today. Getting your hands on a nice cut of meat today is as easy as heading to the grocery store or butcher, or hitting up a local restaurant. Because of this, many people have made meat a staple in their diets.
Some research has found that red meat is not good for the body, and suggested people should avoid it as much as possible. While there may be some truth to that sentiment, it's not always the case. Like other types of animal protein, red meat contains nutrients and vitamins that the body needs to function properly. Some of the nutrients it offers, such as protein, are also hard to get through other food sources in the same amount.
There are good and bad aspects to eating meat, especially when it comes to your body’s ability to ward off illness. Meat consumption, or the lack thereof, can dramatically impact the immune system. But how exactly does meat contribute to the strength or weakness of your immunity? Read on to learn how eating red meat affects the immune system in various ways.
Is meat good for your immune system?
Meat may be frowned upon in many circles, but there's no denying its nutritional value. Meat contains high levels of protein, iron, B vitamins, and zinc. All of these nutrients are important for a variety of functions.
In terms of immunity, each nutrient plays its role. Protein, for example, breaks up into what is known as amino acids. The immune system uses these amino acids to:
- Regulate the activation of immune cells
- Encourage proper gene expression
- Reproduce specific immune cells known as lymphocytes
- Produce antibodies, cytokines, and other substances in the body that help with fighting disease
Studies have shown that supplementing with these amino acids can have the same effect. However, meat is a total protein. While supplements may provide some amino acids, they will not offer all of them. Because of this, the effects are not precisely the same.
Does red meat weaken your immune system?
People can consume various types of meat, and red meat is only one of them. The best kind is lean poultry or fish because it offers beneficial nutrients without the added fat or other ingredients that can harm overall health.
That said, the research surrounding red meat and its effects on the body has found that it's not necessarily red meat in general that's bad – it’s the type of red meat. For example, processed meat increases the risk of chronic disease in the long run. However, grass-fed red meat is lower in the saturated fat that contributes to illness and thus doesn't carry that same risk.
When looking at red meat and the immune system specifically, it may not be the red meat that causes an issue, but rather a molecule known as Neu5Gc that’s found within it. While a little isn't necessarily harmful, steady consumption of this molecule can cause the immune system to produce antibodies to fight against it. When that happens, and the immune system is creating antibodies constantly, it can lead to chronic inflammation.
Over time, this overactivity of the immune system can damage healthy cells within the body and weaken your overall state of health.
Does not eating meat weaken the immune system?
Vegetarian and vegan diets that forgo meat consumption are growing in popularity because of their proposed health benefits. Research has shown that avoiding meat products may benefit the body in many ways. However, not all non-meat-based food products are good for you. Essentially, the only thing that matters is that you're consuming high-quality food without added chemicals, preservatives, or other substances that can harm the body.
When looking at a healthy vegetarian or vegan diet, studies have found a connection between an increase in immune health as opposed to a weakening. The studies looked at counts of white blood cell, which are designed to fight off infection. When people avoid meat altogether, they tend to have lower levels of white blood cells.
While that may sound harmful, it's actually the opposite. Too many white blood cells can harm your immune health, and too few has the same effect. In vegetarians and vegans, a lower white blood cell count is a sort of happy medium for optimal cell levels.
Research has also found that vegetarian and vegan diets can lower inflammation within the body, which, as mentioned above, can harm overall health and the immune system.
Eating red meat can be both good and bad for the immune system – it depends on a lot of factors. What type of red meat, how often you're consuming it, and whether it is highly processed all come into play. When considering how your red meat consumption connects to your immune health, it’s important to examine these factors.
If you plan to eat red meat, ensure you choose a quality cut. Other forms of protein, such as chicken and turkey, don't have the same negative health consequences, so they could be another good option if you want to have meat on your plate. Red meat consumption is a choice, and knowing that it can both help and hurt your immune system is key information you can use to make your decision.