Now that swimsuit season is upon us, the focus turns towards losing those extra pounds that can no longer be hidden under a heavy, winter coat. Not satisfied to take the slow and steady approach, some beach lovers crash diet in hopes of getting a bikini-ready body in the shortest time possible. Why is this not a good idea? Not only does crash dieting make you tired and hungry, it may be harmful to your immune system. Fast isn’t always better when it comes to losing weight.
Crash Dieting and Your Immune System
No doubt, you have to cut back on calories or expend more through exercise to shed those pesky pounds of body fat, but dropping calories below 1200 a day can slow your metabolism, ultimately making it harder to lose weight. Just as importantly, it can impact immune function. Calories from the food you eat supply the energy all the cells in your body need to function properly, including immune cells that protect you against bacteria, viruses, parasites and other unwelcome invaders. Crash dieting deprives your immune cells of what they need.
What are the consequences? According to the European Food Information Council, when you drop your calorie intake below 1200 a day, it reduces immune function, making your immune system less capable of protecting you against foreign invaders, including infection-causing bacteria and viruses. At the same time, overeating and consuming TOO many calories can suppress immune function too, which is why being obese isn’t good for immune health. Your immune system needs a balanced amount of energy to carry out its functions properly.
When you crash diet, not only are you limiting your body’s calorie and energy supply, you’re depriving it of the vitamins and minerals your body needs to support healthy immune function. Crash diets that are low in protein are particularly detrimental to immune health. Research shows low-protein, calorie-restricted diets decrease the function of T-cells that protect against infection. Ever notice when you go on an extreme diet, you always seem to catch a cold? Now you know why.
The Role Vitamins and Minerals Play
A number of vitamins and minerals are also essential for healthy immune function. For example, the mineral zinc and vitamins A, C and E support the health of your skin and mucous membranes, part of your innate immune system, so they can more effectively act as a barrier against viruses and bacteria. You also need vitamins A, D, E, B6, B12 and the minerals zinc and selenium to produce antibodies and for other aspects of immune function.
If you’re eating a very low-calorie diet, there’s a good chance you’re not meeting your body’s requirements for these nutrients and micronutrients. Deficiencies in any one of these dietary components can act as a weak link and break the chain of healthy immune function.
Your immune cells need balanced nutrition to best do their job. Crash dieting doesn’t give them the support they need. Research shows children who are malnourished have abnormally low levels of natural killer cells, cells that kill cells infected with viruses and tumor cells without harming normal cells. Those are the kind of cells you want to have around! Another study found malnourished children have thymus glands that are smaller in size, not a good thing since the thymus gland is essential for normal development and maturation of immune cells called T-cells.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, what you put in your mouth is important for the health of your immune system. Don’t drop your calories too low or deprive yourself of essential nutrients and micronutrients when trying to lose weight. Eat healthy to support your immune system so it can do its job of protecting you.
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-By Alternative Health Concepts
European Food Information Council. “Nutrition and the Immune System”
Crit Care Med. 1990 Feb;18(2 Suppl):S86-93.
Br J Nutr. 2007 Oct;98 Suppl 1:S29-35.