Does diet affect your immune system?

Jan 23, 2018 | 4 comments

By Susan Burke March

Do you love fast food? Maybe you think that just “once in a while” indulgence in animal-fatty, salty and processed foods such as a big beef burger on a white-bread bun with deep-fried fries is your deserved payment for eating healthfully most of the time?  When I was growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, my grandma used to say, “Everything in moderation.”

Everything in moderation.

This was before Big Macs, buckets of KFC, and before the internet. Today, the average U.S. American male eats about 3,770 calories, but needs only 2,500 to maintain his weight, and three out of four Americans are overweight or obese. Childhood obesity is a bigger concern globally than childhood malnutrition. Studies show that although people are living longer, poor diet is the second highest risk factor for death after smoking. And many (including children) get no daily activity, except for the calorie burn from exercising their thumbs (texting).

Recently, researchers from the University of Bonn showed that the body reacts to a high fat, high calorie diet just like to a bacterial infection, promoting inflammation that can be linked to development of heart disease and diabetes. The research is published in the journal Cell.

Mice were fed a Western diet (aka ‘fast food’) or a healthy control diet: genomic studies showed that the Western diet activated acute inflammation. Then they switched the mice to their typical cereal diet, and the inflammation disappeared. However, even after four weeks, many of the genes linked to inflammation, that had been switched on during the fast food phase, were still active.

Scientists report that the innate immune system has a form of memory. After a bacterial infection, the body’s defenses remain in a kind of alarm state, so that they can respond more quickly to a new attack. In the study mice, the alarm state was triggered not by a bacterium, but by an unhealthy diet.

The Takeaway:

Unhealthy eating causes genetic changes, which can accelerate development of vascular diseases or type 2 diabetes by way of chronic inflammatory response, which can have dramatic consequences for health.

Individuals born today (especially in the U.S.) will live on average shorter lives than their parents, and unhealthy diets and lack of activity are contributing factors. Choose whole foods, stay active, and support policies that enable children to make choices that are the foundation of a healthy lifestyle.

Susan Burke March is a registered dietitian and a Cuenca expat. She can be reached at

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