How Eating A Vegetarian Diet Affects The Immune System
Plant-based diets that forgo meat are beginning to take center stage in the health realm. This is likely due to the ongoing research surrounding diet and health and how connected the two are. In the past, many people didn't understand just how much food affects us on a cellular level. We were told to eat from all the food groups, and that was about it.
Nowadays, information regarding certain foods and their connection to overall health is readily available. People can access information that only nutritionists used to have, which empowers them to tweak their health by controlling what they do and don’t consume. With that new information has come the widespread adoption of a vegetarian diet due to its health benefits. But how exactly does becoming a vegetarian impact your immunity? Read on to learn more about plant-based foods and how eating a vegetarian diet affects the immune system.
What is a strict vegetarian diet?
On the spectrum of vegetarian diets, most people avoid only meat products while still consuming some animal products such as dairy. People who eat dairy products on a vegetarian diet are called lacto vegetarians. People who stick to a plant-based diet but eat eggs as well as dairy are lacto-ovo vegetarians. The one that all these plant-based diets have in common is the total removal of meat and meat products.
Immunity of vegetarian and non-vegetarian people
The immune system relies on several bodily processes to run at its best. Diet, for example, plays an integral role in the health of the immune system, as do sleep, exercise, age, and genetics. When it comes to diet, the things you put into your body will transform into energy and break down so the immune system can use the nutrients it needs to function. For example, if you eat an orange, the vitamin C in that orange will be used by the immune system to help it do its job.
While both vegetarians and carnivores can have a healthy immune system, there are upsides and downsides to both types of diets. Research has shown that certain types of meat may weaken your defenses because of a specific molecule known as Neu5Gc. This molecule can trigger an immune response in the body, which leads to antibody production as a way to fight off the molecule. That activation of the immune system causes inflammation, and chronic inflammation can hinder the immune system and your overall health.
On the other hand, vegetarians may get more of the nutrients the immune system needs to function because they eat more vegetables and fruit. However, they may also miss out on critical immunity components typically found in meat products, such as B vitamins and iron. If they do not get enough through their vegetarian diet and lack the proper supplementation to compensate for the discrepancy, they can end up deficient. Deficiencies in these vitamins, B vitamins specifically, can cause issues with how the immune system regulates itself.
Do vegetarians have less immunity?
Determining if vegetarians have a weakened immune response isn't easy. There is conflicting evidence and different factors of immunity need to be considered.
For example, one study examined the connection between a plant-based diet and immunity. The results showed that a plant-based diet could strengthen immunity because of a decrease in white blood cells. White blood cells are immune cells that fight off infection – and while you may initially think that less is not better, in this case, it actually is. The study found that while too few white blood cells harm your immune system, the same can be said for too many. There is a sweet spot for white blood cell count and optimal immunity, and vegetarians often land in that spot.
That said, some vegetarians may have weaker immune systems. This is especially true if they are not eating healthy plant-based foods. When vegetarians don't eat healthily, they miss out on proper nutrient intake that could help push their immunity to its highest level. If you’re eating a vegetarian diet, it’s vital to avoid foods containing ingredients that hinder your immune process.
For example, many ready-made plant-based substitutes for meats, such as vegetarian burgers, are likely to contain a lot of additives because they are heavily processed. These extra additives are not great for your immune system. Research has found that they alter gut bacteria and encourage widespread inflammation in the body, in turn causing your immune system to function poorly.
Do non-vegetarians have a better immune system?
Comparing non-vegetarians and vegetarians based on their immune health is an apples-to-oranges comparison. This is because both meat eaters and vegetarians can have weak or robust immune systems. It doesn’t depend solely on whether they do or don't eat meat, but rather on the type of meat they eat or the types of food they consume instead of meat.
Suppose a meat eater consumes only lean poultry and fish and maintains a balanced diet that includes all the necessary nutrients. In that case, they are likely to have just as healthy an immune system as a vegetarian. The same can be said for the opposite: vegetarians who focus on whole plant-based foods and avoid non-meat products with harmful substances or additives can also have a healthy immune system.
In the end, it isn't about whether you do or don’t eat meat. It's the substance of the foods you do eat that determines your overall level of immune health.