Fruits and vegetables do not prevent the flu

We don’t need vaccines to stop infectious diseases. We need to eat better, bolster our immune system naturally.

This is a common battle cry of those who proselytize about the dangers of vaccines. They say eating healthy is the way to ward off illness (and maybe also buying their special brand of vitamins and their book that tells you how to eat healthy…just saying).

Here’s the flaw. Unhealthy eating (a.k.a. the Western diet) did not really become a “thing” until the last 30 years or so. So let’s go back a little further, say before World War II. People generally ate less and what they did eat was not farmed on land fertilized by petrochemicals. The chickens didn’t need their beaks removed for protection and the cows were not pumped full of antibiotics so they could tolerate the feedlots.

People ate healthy. We know this because there was very little obesity, yet they still died from influenza, from pertussis, and from polio. If eating healthy prevents disease the polio epidemics in the US in 1916, 1934, and 1952 should never have existed.

Consider the Nome, Alaska diphtheria epidemic in 1925 (the Iditarod is homage to the dogsled teams that raced to bring antitoxin to the stricken community).  Records are unclear as to how many died, maybe 7 children in town and possible up to 100 Inuit. I suspect the Inuit were eating very healthy in 1925, having thrived for centuries on their diet perfectly adapted for the extreme environment, yet they contracted and died from diphtheria.

Vaccine preventable infectious diseases have been around for centuries, long before trans fats, high fructose corn syrup, petrochemical fertilizer, monosodium glutamate, and red dye #5. The 20th century evil that allows diseases to spread so efficiently is not our diet, but over crowding. When the next town is a half a days ride on a horse (if you have a horse that is) it is a lot hard harder for contagious diseases to spread.

I believe in eating healthy. I pack a lunch everyday for work. I buy my meat and eggs from a local organic farmer, eat 5 servings of veggies and 3 of fruit a day, and degerm my hands before and after every patient contact. I still caught H1N1 influenza in 2009 before the vaccine was available. If eating healthy was a defense I should never have been sick (and for the record it was a horrible 6 days). My son Oliver eats healthier than most children in addition to a couple of Pediasures a day. He is getting all of his recommended daily vitamins and minerals, yet he is ill year after year with viruses. Healthy eating does not trump bad lungs and a bad heart.

There are no studies that suggest obesity increases the risk of contracting influenza, polio, pertussis or any other vaccine preventable disease. For the “fruits and vegetables prevent infectious diseases” theory to hold water, we should see dramatically more of these diseases among the obese, because that’s a pretty good marker for unhealthy eating. While it is true obesity can make you sicker if you get the flu, that is probably courtesy of immobility, diabetes, lung disease, heart disease and all the other health problems associated with extra pounds.

Eating healthy is the right thing to do. It is better for our bodies and better for the environment, but to tell someone that eating fruits and vegetable is more effective than vaccination against influenza, pertussis, or HPV is simply bad science, snake oil, or both.

Oh, and the picture? My homemade organic blueberry and lemon verbena popsicles. Simply to die for, but sadly no replacement for a shot.

References:

Kumar et al. Critically ill patients with 2009 Influenza (H1N1) Infection in Canada. JAMA 2009;302:1872

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