An academic paper investigating the link between food and allergies has found that plant-based diets could play a key role in protecting allergy sufferers.
Zhang Ping of the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden trawled more than a decade’s research to see how diet impacts symptoms of allergies.
Published in Nutrients, the results highlight the potential of plant-based foods in protecting against allergens.
What are allergies and what influences them?
An allergy is the response of the body’s immune system to things like pollens, foods, and house dust mite.
In most people, these substances are harmless. But for others, their immune system identifies them as a threat and produces an inappropriate response.
There is still much debate around ways to prevent or minimize allergies. Some suggest early exposure to allergens and breastfeeding as prevention measures. It is also generally accepted that probiotics – beneficial bacteria – can help reduce the risk of developing allergies.
How can a plant-based diet help fight allergies?
The study highlighted several dietary and nutritional risk factors linked to allergies.
These include high saturated fat, cholesterol, low total dietary fiber, and low vegetables and fruits. Mr Ping also noted links to high simple sugars and processed foods and low levels of iron and vitamins A, D, and E.
In the paper, Mr Ping states that “nutritionally balanced plant-based diets protect from allergy and reduce the severity of allergic diseases [because] plant-based diets contain high amounts of anti-allergic nutrients.”
The importance of fiber to fighting allergies
The study explains that “sufficient dietary fiber and adequate macronutrient intake” are “essential for maintaining immune tolerance to allergens.”
The British Dietetic Association (BDA) recommends that adults aim for around 30 grams of dietary fiber each day. Currently, the average UK adult gets just 18g, the BDA says.
Those following a plant-based diet naturally get more fiber. Indeed, the BDA’s recommended foods to increase fiber intake are all plant based. Some of the top fibrous foods include peanuts (7.6g), figs (6.9g), parsnip (4.7g) and strawberries (3.8g).
As well as helping allergy sufferers, fiber has an array of other health benefits. According to the UK National Health Service (NHS), there is strong evidence linking fiber with a lower risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and bowel cancer.
Making diets more plant based could have a big impact
In the UK, some 20 million people have an allergic disease, according to estimates.
Half of those have active allergic symptoms in any year, while 2.5 million have sufficiently severe symptoms to require medical help. Rates are also growing, experts suggest, with two in five children in the UK now diagnosed with an allergy.
These figures show the significant impact that a dietary switch to plant-based foods could have. Mr Ping calls for “[f]urther clinical trials […] to examine the potential beneficial effects of plant-based diets and anti-allergic nutrients in the prevention and management of allergic diseases.”