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Can a plant-based diet boost your immune system health?

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Making plant-based foods the main attraction on your plate is not only good for you, it’s good for the planet. But is it really like sending your immune system to boot camp? Here’s the drill.

Going plant-based

Gone plant-based recently? You’ve got company. One in three Australians are vegetarian or reducing their meat intake – and someone else joins the movement every five minutes. Feels good to be part of something, right?

The health benefits of plant-based diets are definitely impressive. If you’re already a convert, you’re on track to enjoy everything from a lower risk of certain health conditions to better heart health and even a longer life. 

On top of that, you’re doing your bit for the environment. Even going plant-based five out of seven days a week reduces greenhouse gas emissions and land use by about 45 per cent. We know. There’s a lot to love about it. 

But is eating a plant-based diet the equivalent of drinking 17 wheatgrass shots for your immune system?

It turns out it kind of is.

Why your immune system loves plant-based foods

For now, research isn’t fully across the exact reasons why plant-based diets are a big plus for your immune system, but it’s more likely to be the fact that they equal eating larger amounts of fruits, vegetables and legumes, instead of how they limit animal protein. 

Here’s why. For starters, a whole heap of plant-derived substances – including antioxidants like flavonoids and curcumin – are thought to be active against the kind of viruses that are responsible for colds and flus.

Some research even shows that people who eat foods jam-packed with flavonoids – that’s things like berries, onions and apples – on the regular are more protected from catching a cold than people who don’t. 

Then there’s the fact that a plant-based diet is seriously good for your gut health, which is seriously good for your immune system. It’s largely because a lot of the foods a plant-based diet relies on are loaded with prebiotic fibres that feed your gut’s ‘good’ bacteria. And the ‘good gut health’ changes can start to occur in a matter of days after going plant-based.   

Something called inflammation is also worth knowing about because that plays a role in your body’s immune response, too. The short story is, the less inflammation you have, the better and – more good news – plant-based diets protect against it.   

Making a meal of plants

The thing to remember is that while plant-based diets are good for your immune system, you’re going have to do more than have your three fave veggies on high rotation to make it work. 

The flipside of all the good things associated with going plant-based is that, without at least a bit of thought, you can risk missing out on some critical nutrients: things like zinc, vitamin B12 and omega-3 fatty acids – particularly if you’ve committed to plant-free big time. 

The fix is diversity; making sure your plant-based plates of food contain not just fruits and vegetables, but legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains, too. And keep mixing it up. You might love kale (you’re only human), but make sure you give everything from pumpkin to beetroot a look in, too.