This Is What Fast Food Actually Does to Your Immune System

Updated: Jan. 31, 2018

Your fast food habit could be making permanent changes to your body. Here's what a new study revealed.

Concept of mock up burger, potatoes, sauce, chicken nuggets and drink on red background. Copy space for text and logo.nazarovsergey/ShutterstockDon’t get enough sleep? Drink too much booze? Stressing out? These everyday habits could all be ruining your immune system, but the worst culprit may be your fast food habit.

A recent study out of the University of Bonn suggests that a typical “Western diet” (a lot of red meat, sugar, and saturated fat and not much fiber—basically synonymous with fast food) can kick the immune system into overdrive, causing inflammation. The study, published in the journal, Cell, goes on to connect that inflammatory response to serious conditions like cardiovascular diseases (read: stroke or heart attack) and type 2 diabetes, which itself can lead to cardiovascular diseases, as reported by Science Daily.

Researchers, led by Eicke Latz, MD, PhD, director of the Institute for Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn in Germany, placed mice on a Western diet and observed that after only one month, the mice had an inflammatory response akin to that triggered by a serious bacterial infection. “Fast food thus causes the body to quickly recruit a huge and powerful army,” noted the University of Bonn’s press release, as that process notably increases the immune cells in the mice’s blood.

Even worse? The immune response isn’t reversible, the scientists discovered. When they fed the mice a healthier diet for another month, the acute inflammation subsided, but genetic testing revealed permanent changes to the immune system. This is because “the innate immune system has a form of memory,” Dr. Latz explains. “After an infection [or in the case of the mice, exposure to fast food], the body’s defenses remain in a kind of alarm state, so that they can respond more quickly to a new attack.”

Although the precise mechanism behind this process remains to be determined, Dr. Latz sees the research results as a warning, especially for parents of young kids, and suggests nutrition play a more prominent role in early childhood education. “Children have a choice of what they eat every day,” he says. “We should enable them to make conscious decisions regarding their dietary habits.”

Make sure you avoid these other seemingly innocent habits that could be damaging your immune system.