A study published n the journal Science Immunologyresearchers reported that feeding mice a low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet helped shield the critters against influenza infection.

The influenza A virus, commonly called the flu, is a viral infection that targets the respiratory system — the nose, throat and sometimes the lungs. In the U.S., it causes more than 20,000 deaths and costs upwards of $87 billion each year.

The research team fed the mice a keto diet — 90 percent of calories from fat and less than 1 percent from carbohydrates — for seven days. Then, the mice were infected with the influenza A virus. Scientists found that these mice didn’t lose weight, but had lower levels of the virus in their lungs and had greater survival rates compared to mice on a more traditional “chow” diet, where the majority of calories came from carbs.

The authors suggest that the diet helped the mice ward off infection by activating more T cells — a type of white blood cell that plays a key role in the body’s immune system — in the lungs. The cells strengthened the barrier to the respiratory tract, keeping the virus from entering the lungs.

The researchers also found that a ketogenic diet, rather than a high-fat diet, was required for the mice to produce more protective T cells. And while they note the potential of harnessing keto diets as a new way of treating — and possibly preventing — influenza, the scientists emphasize that the mechanisms behind the diet’s effects need to be explored further.

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