Vegetarian diet linked to lower risk of UTIs - how to fit more veg in your life

Plant-based diets can have a whole range of benefits: not only are they better for the environment, but they can also help reduce cholesterol and have the potential to be super-high in gut-friendly fibre.

And now it turns out that eating veggie may also help to stave off urinary tract infections (UTIs).

UTIs affect around 150 million people every year worldwide and in most cases, they’re caused by the E.coli bacteria. As E.coli is more likely to be present in meat, scientists from Dalin Tzu Chi Hospital in Taiwan hypothesised that vegetarians would have a lower risk of developing UTIs.

To test the theory, they carried out a study on 9,724 people over a nine-year period. Using a food frequency questionnaire, they assessed their diets while factoring all the external factors that may make someone more predisposed to developing a UTI (like age, smoking and blood pressure). And they found that those who ate a vegetarian diet had a 16% lower risk of developing a UTI.

Of the 3,040 veggies studied, 217 developed a UTI, compared to 444 of the 6,684 meat eaters. The link was especially strong in women and people who had never smoked.

‘The vegetarian diet is protectively associated with UTI particular in females and uncomplicated UTIs,’ the study concluded.

So why might going meat-free protect us from pee problems?

Well, the authors of study suggested that aside from the whole E.coli factor, fibre could play a significant role. Plant-based diets tend to be a lot more fibre-rich than omnivorous ones, and our gut bacteria loves nothing better than breaking down fibre in the gut to produce short-chain fatty acids. That in turn lowers the pH of the intestine.

A 2015 study by Washington University in St Louis found that the more acidic a person’s pee, the more likely they were to develop an infection. It also concluded that the more plant fodder someone ate, the lower the pH was and the lower the risk of bacterial overgrowth. Plants also contain things called phytochemicals, which are known to be antibacterial as well as anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic and anti-oxidative. These chemicals again may play a role in keeping guts and urinary tracts in healthy and happy.

In other words, you can never eat enough plants!

How to get more plants into your diet

Add a portion of plants to every meal. Every 80g is another portion, so that could mean adding slices of banana to your morning porridge, making a mid-morning smoothie, adding a handful of mixed seeds to your lunch or stirring in fistfuls of spinach to a chickpea curry for dinner. You can even add them to treats! We love the look of these black bean brownies!

Eat the rainbow. You want to eat a diverse range of plant food - including fruit, nuts, seeds, pulses, colourful veg and green leaves to really build up a good, strong gut. Try to avoid eating exactly the same meals every day.

Have at least two meat-free days a week. If you eat meat, schedule two meat-free days a week. That’ll mean you’re automatically having a plant boost on those days while giving your digestive system a well earned rest (meat and dish can take as long as two days to fully digest, while fruit and veg pass through in less than a day).

Combine grains and veg. You don’t have to eat vegetables instead of grains but it’s a good idea to add them. Try mixing peas and beans in with your rice, or put some cauliflower in a food processor, whisk until it’s broken down into tiny bits, steam for a few minutes in the microwave. You can either eat the cauliflower rice instead of regular grains or mix the two together.

Add other root veg to your mash. Potatoes with the skin on contains loads of fibre but if you’re making mash, make up for the lack of skin by adding other veg like parsnips, turnips and carrots.

Make your own dips. Save money on houmous and have a go at some DYI. Simply blend chickpeas, lemon juice, tahini, olive oil and salt in your food processor et voila! Guacamole is another super simple dip: mash an avocado before adding finely chopped onions, chopped fresh tomatoes, a couple of chopped red chillis, and a squeeze of lemon juice before topping with fresh coriander. Serve with whole wheat pitta breads or carrot sticks.

Change your treats. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, try snacking on medjool dates dipped in nut butter instead of your usual chocolate bar. Dates are packed with fibre and the medjool variety tastes like gooey caramel. Nut butter is rich in protein and fibre too so together create the perfect sweet treat that’s totally healthy.

Information contained in this Articles page has been written by talkhealth based on available medical evidence. The content however should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek medical advice before changing your treatment routine. talkhealth does not endorse any specific products, brands or treatments.

Information written by the talkhealth team

Last revised: 13 February 2020
Next review: 13 February 2023