Low-carb eating and your immunity
Can following a low-carb diet help boost your immunity and keep you healthy this winter? It could if done right, says dietician Kim Hofmann.
Everyone seems to be jumping on the low-carb bandwagon lately thanks to its proponents such as Dr Robert Atkins and, more recently, South African sports scientist Prof Tim Noakes. But with winter’s nasty bugs on the way, will this eating regime have a positive or a negative effect on your immune system?
According to clinical dietician Kim Hofmann, there are some benefits to be found in low-carbohydrate eating – as long as it’s low-carb and not no-carb.
Why you need some carbohydrates
"Carbohydrates are your unit of immediate 'energy food'. They control blood-sugar levels and keep them stable, which is an important part of health. We (dieticians in SA) have always recommended a controlled carbohydrate intake with a limited intake of simple, low-fibre, sugar carbohydrates. Many of us follow a diet too high in carbohydrates, but cutting out complex, high-fibre, healthier carbohydrates isn’t the best for your health," she explains.
"Cutting out bread, pasta, and potatoes is often viewed as 'low carb' for the general public, but if you’re still eating dairy, fruit and starchy veggies, this isn’t low-carb at all." However, your carbohydrate intake may be better controlled and therefore better for your overall health.
For Hofmann, however, the biggest confusion comes in with the “no carb” message that comes with some of these diets. "A no-carb diet isn’t best for the physiology of our bodies."
Low-carb diets and immunity
So, given the current popularity of the low-carb, "banting" style of eating (first popularised by William Banting in the late 19th century) and the subsequent cutting out of processed foods and carbohydrates, does this type of diet deserve some credit for encouraging people to eat healthier?
And could this way of eating in fact have a positive effect on our immune system? Kim says it could, if it’s done right.She explains that diets that are high in refined starches, sugar and saturated and trans-fatty acid and low in natural antioxidants and fibre from fruit, vegetables, whole grains and omega-3 fatty acids cause more pro-inflammatory and less anti-inflammatory cytokines (regulatory proteins) – which basically means they produce more inflammation in the body. And you don’t want that.
To boost your immune system’s functioning, you need to have a diet high in omega-3 fats, fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains “and less saturated and trans-fats”.
The problem, Kim reiterates, is that many foods contain carbohydrates:
- Starches such as starchy veg (potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, peas,
- Legumes (lentils, beans)
- Milk and yoghurt butternut, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots)
“Cutting out the healthier foods in these food groups will not help with the inflammatory process in our bodies.”
How to eat low-carb and stay healthy
So, if you’re enjoying the low-carb way of eating and it’s working well for you by ensuring that you have plenty of “free” green vegetables (such as baby marrow, spinach etc.), fatty fish (salmon, mackerel, herring, trout, sardines), plant fats (avocado, nuts, seeds, olives, and oils (raw – as in salad dressings – not cooked), you can have the best of both worlds.
However, Kim still advises that whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes all have a place in a balanced diet.
"Don’t cut out all carbohydrates in your diet, especially in the winter months. Still incorporate fruit, starchy vegetables and legumes in your diet to give your immune system all the support it needs."