The link between meat and immune system defences

People who think that vegetarians get less sick will have to change their minds about the evidence: meat makes us strong. Overall nutrition plays an important role in the immune response.

The presence of meat within the diet gives an extra boost, thanks to the content of all the essential elements for a strong and efficient immune system. In fact, several studies show that excluding meat and fish from the diet could have a possible negative impact on the immune response, since people who follow a vegetarian diet have fewer cells used to defend the body, resulting in a significantly lower antibody response.

The evaluation of serum immunoglobulin levels in vegetarian and omnivorous children showed that iron deficiency in vegetarian children can lead to a reduction in immunoglobulin levels, with lower immune defences compared to meat eaters. The immune response is in fact linked not only to iron, but also to the intake of energy, zinc, copper and vitamin B6, all nutrients that we find in excellent quantity and bioavailability in meat, which vegetarians don’t eat. For this reason, the impact of the different assumptions of these nutrients on antibody levels has registered differences between vegetarians and omnivores, with lower levels of antibodies in vegetarian children.

Not only children, but also adults and the elderly who follow a diet without meat and fish have recorded a significantly lower count of white and red blood cells, with lower levels of neutrophils, monocytes, eosinophils, lymphocytes and basophils, all cells involved in the antibody response. The analysis of the immune function revealed a lower phagocytic activity, that is a lower ability of the cells to ingest and destroy foreign substances such as viruses and bacteria, with a consequent reduction in the possibility of defending themselves from diseases.

This may be due to the lack of important nutrients to which vegetarian diets are most at risk, such as proteins, which make up enzymes and antibodies, the “soldiers” used to defend our body, but also other micronutrients that intervene in the basic biochemical reactions of the immune system, such as iron, calcium, magnesium, copper and zinc, which are poorly bioavailable in plant-based diets, but are crucial in supporting immune defences.

Even a clinical study by the University of Graz has concluded that vegetarians get sick more often and have a lower quality of life than omnivores, with a greater likelihood of suffering from allergies, asthma, diabetes, migraines, osteoporosis, heart disease, mental disorders, such as anxiety and depression, eating disorders and tumours, supporting once again how it is not at all advantageous to give up meat and fish.

Not only red meat like beef and pork, but also white meat as chicken and turkey enhances the immune defences, because they are rich in vitamin B6: they contain half of the daily requirement, an important link in basic biochemical immunity chains and vital for the formation of new and healthy white and red blood cells. Especially when cooked in broth, the chicken helps to improve the symptoms of cold and flu, because it dissolves its gelatine and chondroitin, a substance found in cartilages, useful for treating arthrosis and other elements in the water, feeding the microbiota, increasing the defensive power of intestinal bacterial microflora and then healing from infectious diseases.

Meat has excellent levels of most of the vitamins that strengthen the immune system such as vitamin B1 and vitamin B12, whose deficiency causes a reduction in the number of lymphocytes, but also chromium, a micronutrient presents in trace amounts in our body that stimulates immune defences and resistance to infections. Also, the content in nutraceutical substances such as CLA, which prevent inflammatory damage derived from the immune response, and in essential omega 3 fats is important, especially DHA, found in higher doses in the breast milk of women who eat meat, thus able to transmit it to the infant, increasing the efficiency of white blood cells and the child’s ability to defend himself.

For this reason, meat is a perfect supporter of the immune system, able to strengthen not only the response to foreign agents, but also to reduce the resulting inflammation, reducing damage and improving performance. Eating meat therefore can make the difference, making us stronger against diseases, because it can arm ourselves to fight against daily external aggressions, thanks to its unique density of nutrients, which make it an essential component for a complete and healthy diet.

Agronomist, nutritional consultant and scientific writer, author and co-author of 11 scientific publications and numerous articles on human nutrition and its impact on health and environment. In 2010 she received the title of Doctor Europaeus and PhD in Animal Production, Health and Food Hygiene in countries with a Mediterranean climate.