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Keto, Vegan Diets Rewire the Immune System

Following a ketogenic or vegan diet can significantly alter the immune system for the better within just two weeks, new research shows.

If you’re thinking about switching to a vegan or keto diet, a new study suggests it may be a good idea — at least when it comes to boosting your immune system’s ability to fight disease.

The small crossover study, published in Nature Medicine, found that following a keto or vegan diet for just two weeks can essentially rewire the immune system and significantly increase the levels of disease-fighting T cells and natural killer (NK) cells.

“Our study revealed that a 2-week dietary intervention can impose a striking shift in host immunity, superseding genetics, age, sex, ethnicity, race and even body mass index,” the authors wrote.

For the highly controlled nutritional study, 20 diverse participants admitted to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Clinical Center consumed a low-carbohydrate, keto diet (75.8% fat, 10% carbohydrate) and a vegan, low-fat diet (10.3% fat, 75.2% carbohydrate) for two weeks at each, in whatever order they wanted. The order in which they followed the diets did not impact the outcome, the researchers noted.

The foundation of both diets was non-starchy vegetables with low amounts of digestible carbohydrates (sugars and starches) and minimal amounts of highly processed food. The keto diet, however, includes animal-based products such as meat, poultry, fish, eggs, dairy, and nuts. The vegan diet meanwhile featured legumes, rice, root vegetables, soy products, corn, lentils, peas, whole grains, bread, and fruit.

The vegan diet was high in dietary fiber and low in dietary sugars compared with the keto diet, and the keto diet was much higher in fatty acids and amino acids.

While both diets increased the level of T and NK cells in participants, the keto diet specifically resulted in the upregulation of pathways and enrichment in cells associated with the adaptive immune system, which is what remembers and responds to specific pathogens.

The vegan diet, on the other hand, boosted the processes of the innate immune system, including upregulation of pathways associated with antiviral immunity — meaning it enhanced the immune system’s initial, nonspecific response to pathogens.

Both diets also had an effect on the composition and function of the participants’ microbiomes and host-associated amino acid metabolism, though the impact of the keto diet was more pronounced than the vegan diet in this area.

“This work demonstrates that in diverse participants, 2 weeks of controlled dietary intervention is sufficient to significantly and divergently impact host immunity, which could have implications for precision nutritional interventions,” the authors wrote. “The insights derived from this work may have the potential to improve our understanding of diet-based therapeutic options for the prevention and treatment of disease.”

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