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Vegan and keto diets rapidly transform the immune system

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have discovered rapid and significant immune system changes in individuals who switched to either a vegan or a ketogenic (keto) diet. The study provides critical insights into how dietary choices can affect our body’s defense mechanisms.

Focus of the study

The research was conducted by experts from the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). 

The team closely monitored the biological responses of participants as they alternated between vegan and keto diets over two-week periods, in a random order.

Multi-omics approach 

The participants, who were diverse in ethnicity, race, gender, body mass index (BMI), and age, underwent thorough analysis through blood, urine, and stool samples. 

The study used a “multi-omics” approach, assessing biochemical, cellular, metabolic, and immune responses, along with changes in the microbiome.

Vegan diet

The vegan diet, typically high in fiber and low in fat, led to notable changes in pathways related to the innate immune system, including antiviral responses. 

This diet is known for eliminating animal products and in this study, contained approximately 10% fat and 75% carbohydrates. Interestingly, participants on the vegan diet consumed fewer calories compared to those on the keto diet.

Keto diet 

The keto diet, which is low in carbohydrates and generally high in fat, prompted significant increases in processes linked to adaptive immunity, particularly pathways associated with T and B cells. 

With about 76% fat and 10% carbohydrates, the keto diet also impacted a broader range of proteins in the blood plasma and affected levels of proteins from various tissues, including blood, brain, and bone marrow.

Both diets produced changes in the participants’ microbiomes, causing shifts in the abundance of gut bacterial species previously linked to these diets. 

Metabolic changes 

The vegan diet, with its higher iron content, promoted more red blood cell-linked pathways, including those involved in heme metabolism. The keto diet was associated with changes in amino acid metabolism, reflecting the higher amounts of protein consumed on this diet.

Despite the diversity of the participants, the study revealed that dietary changes consistently affect widespread and interconnected pathways in the body. The distinct metabolic and immune system changes observed highlight the profound impact that diet can have on our health.

Further research is needed

The experts emphasize the need for further research to understand how these nutritional interventions specifically affect components of the immune system. They suggest that the rapid immune response to dietary changes could open new avenues for preventing diseases or complementing treatments for cancer or neurodegenerative disorders.

The study marks a significant step in understanding the complex relationship between diet, the immune system, and overall health. It demonstrates the potential of using dietary interventions as a therapeutic tool, offering hope for personalized nutrition strategies in the treatment and prevention of various diseases.

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