Ditching meat and going vegan may reduce the risk of urinary tract infection (UTI), a new study found.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are usually caused by bacteria, such as Escherichia coli, which is normally found in the gut but enters the urinary tract through the urethra. UTIs, when left untreated, can reach and affect the kidneys. It is one of the most common microbial infections across the globe, with a worldwide prevalence of 10 in 1,000 people.
Escherichia coli bacteria cells. Image Credit: Tatiana Shepeleva / Shutterstock
Past studies have shown that meat is a major reservoir for E. coli strains that cause UTI, but it was unclear if avoiding eating meat can lower UTI risk. Now, in a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports, provides the first finding on whether going vegetarian and avoiding meat can help lower UTI bouts.
A team of researchers at the Tzu Chi University in Taiwan looked at whether vegetarians have a lower incidence of developing UTIs compared to those who eat meat.
More effective in women
To arrive at their findings, the team assessed the incidence of UTIs in more than 9,700 Buddhists in Taiwan, who participated in the Tzu Chi Vegetarian Study, a study looking at the role of a vegetarian diet on health outcomes. They followed the participants to 10 years and found that vegans were 16 percent less likely to develop a UTI than their meat-eating counterparts.
All the patients were tracked between 2005 and 2014, with assessments of their disease status by the National Health and Welfare Data Science Center and the National Health Insurance Research Database.
The team used a 57-item food frequency questionnaire to assess the patients’ dietary habits. In the study, vegetarians were defined as those who self-identified themselves as vegetarians, or if they reported not eating meat or fish in the questionnaire.
Upon analyzing the diets of men and women separately, the team found that the reduced risk of UTI associated with a vegetarian diet was greater in men than in women. However, women are far more likely to be burdened with cystitis generally. The overall UTI risk for men was 79 percent lower than for women, regardless of diet.
Further, UTIs are more common in women than in men, due to the shorter length of the urethra, making it easier for bacteria to reach the bladder.
Overall, women were 18 percent less likely to develop UTI if they went vegan.
“In conclusion, a vegetarian diet is protectively associated with UTI particularly in females and for uncomplicated UTI. Further study with the identification of pathogens from urine culture is needed to clarify the relationship among UTI risk, pathogens, and vegetarian diet,” the authors concluded.
Lower exposure to bacteria
The researchers suggest that vegetarian diets high in fruits and vegetables contain phytochemicals, which can curb the growth of bacteria. Meat, on the other hand, is known to harbor the bacteria that cause UTIs, hence, avoiding meat may mean less E.coli bacteria in the gut and a lower risk of UTI.
The study has a limitation, such as they weren’t able to look at the impact of switching diets, noting that the bacteria can persist in the gut flora in people who were meat-eaters in the past.
What is Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)?
A urinary tract infection (UTI) is an infection that affects any part of the urinary system, including the urethra, bladder, ureters, and the kidneys. The urinary system is designed to ward off infection and bacteria, but in some cases, pathogens can overcome the body’s natural defenses. As a result, the system develops UTI.
Image Credit: CGN089 / Shutterstock
Depending on the part of the urinary system involved, there are different kinds of UTIs. For instance, when the urethra is affected, it’s termed as urethritis, infected kidneys lead to pyelonephritis, and a bladder infection is called cystitis.
When UTI reaches the kidneys, it can cause a serious health problem.
The common signs and symptoms associated with UTI include pain or stinging sensation when urinating, frequency or feeling a need to urinate more often than normal, urgency, or the strong urge to pass urine, bad or foul-smelling urine, pressure in the lower abdomen, feeling tired, fever, lower back pain, and passing cloudy or reddish-colored urine.
Chen, Y.C., Chang, C.C., Chiu, T., Lin, M.N., and Lin, C.L. (2020). The risk of urinary tract infection in vegetarians and non-vegetarians: a prospective study. Scientific Reports. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-58006-6.