The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Everything You Need To Know
According to the National Health Council, an estimated 157 million Americans live with a chronic condition. The fiscal impact is equally staggering, with an estimated 75% of all healthcare costs attributed to chronic conditions.
While there is still much to learn about the underlying causes of these illnesses, research consistently shows that chronic inflammation is one of the contributing factors to and potential causes of most chronic conditions.
Enter the anti-inflammatory diet. Introduced 20 years ago by Dr. Andrew Weil, MD, the anti-inflammatory diet has become increasingly popular as more people are moving away from fad diets and toward wellness and whole-body health.
What is the anti-inflammatory diet and how can it help you? More a philosophy of eating than a diet, it’s similar to a Mediterranean diet and there is research to support that it may reverse chronic inflammation and have preventative properties for diseases like diabetes, heart disease, depression, Alzheimer’s, obesity, and cancer.
Here, we look the role the diet plays in either promoting or reducing inflammation and the key foods to enjoy and limit on an anti-inflammatory diet.
When working to understand the link between chronic inflammation and chronic disease, Shayna Komar, RD, a Licensed and Registered Oncology Dietitian with Cancer Wellness of Piedmont Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, suggests that we start by defining the two types of inflammation: acute and chronic.
Komar explains, “Inflammation is sometimes confusing, because it may seem contradictory. On one hand, inflammation is a healthy process, allowing the body’s ability to heal itself. When you have an infection or injury, the immune system releases white blood cells and chemicals to fight off the infection or repair damaged tissue.” This type of inflammation is called acute inflammation, and it is helpful to the body.
Inflammation may become dangerous when it persists, even at low levels, for extended periods of time. Carolyn Williams, PhD RD, a registered dietitian and author of the anti-inflammatory cookbook, Meals that Heal, shares, “Chronic inflammation is like a small fire burning inside the body that, over time, gets stoked and encouraged by other irritants, taking a gradual toll on the body by damaging cells, overworking the immune system and creating imbalance that can lead to long-term health issues.”
Komar agrees, “When you don’t have an infection or injury, inflammation can potentially damage healthy tissues. Chronic, low-grade inflammation is inflammation that never really resolves. It's the opposite of 'good' inflammation and may actually damage DNA.”
This is particularly troublesome to those who are undergoing treatment for a chronic condition, as the underlying chronic inflammation potentially fuels the disease.
The positive news is that many of these risk factors for developing chronic inflammation and chronic disease are within our control. One of the easiest and most readily accessible ways that we can reduce inflammation is through eating a diet high in anti-inflammatory foods.
What is the anti-inflammatory diet?
When looking for ways to keep chronic inflammation at bay, research consistently points to four key lifestyle factors: including exercise, reducing stress, managing weight, and getting proper nutrition. When it comes to nutrition and inflammation, this means including anti-inflammatory foods and excluding inflammatory foods.
Komar provides clarity on the role of anti-inflammatory foods, saying, “Certain food components can affect inflammation pathways in your body.” She echoes Williams’ statement and shares, “It is like a fire: What you eat can either put ‘fuel’ to the fire by eating many foods that cause inflammation or you can stop the fire by following an anti-inflammatory diet and lifestyle.”
The anti-inflammatory diet takes principals from the Mediterranean diet, studied since the 1960s, and the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), developed in the 1990s, and has been attributed to Andrew Weil, MD, Harvard University graduate and founder of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona. Weil introduced the anti-inflammatory diet, including an anti-inflammatory food pyramid, in Eating Well for Optimum Health, published in 2000.
The principals of the anti-inflammatory diet are still very relevant today and have increasingly gained popularity over the last 20 years, as studies continue to support the theory that diet can reduce chronic inflammation and can reduce or prevent the instance of chronic disease.
Basic principals of the anti-inflammatory diet
Though the anti-inflammatory diet is not a calorie-restrictive diet, its emphasis on whole, unprocessed foods and reduced sugars and flours may result in weight loss.
The guidelines suggest consuming between 2,000 to 3,000 calories each day—depending on gender and activity level—with men and more active people needing more calories, and women and less active people needing less calories.
The anti-inflammatory diet recommends that 40 to 50 percent of daily calories come from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat and 20 to 30 percent from protein; with an emphasis on including carbohydrates, fat, and protein in every meal.
Vegetables and fruits should make up most of the carbohydrates consumed daily on the anti-inflammatory diet. Beans and whole grains (not whole wheat flour) can also be consumed to add bulk and satiety in this category.
Monounsaturated fats like extra-virgin olive oil, nuts, avocados, and seeds are the healthy fats to be enjoyed on the anti-inflammatory diet. Saturated fats, including animal fats and fats that are solid at room temperature, should be used sparingly. Polyunsaturated fats include omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids and fats that remain liquid at room temperature; focus on including omega-3 fatty acids from this category.
An emphasis on plant-based and lean protein is recommended on the anti-inflammatory diet. Beans, particularly soybeans and whole soy products, and fish, especially fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, are recommended. Limit animal protein and avoid red meat.
In addition, the anti-inflammatory diet suggests that the timing of your meals is important. Dr. Weil recommends that calories be consumed within an 11-hour window, leaving 13 hours overnight as a “fasting period.” He suggests that this fasting period provides time for the body to recalibrate immunity, repair cells, and replenish its capacity for antioxidants.
Five types of anti-inflammatory foods to eat
It is important to look at the overall diet you consume instead of focusing on individual foods. Komar encourages her patients to look at nutrition as a part of their treatment plan.
Research indicates that by consistently focusing on a healthy diet pattern, you can reduce inflammation. Komar shares, “It is all about focusing on your pattern of eating as opposed to choosing a few particular foods to reduce inflammation.”
With this in mind, we look at five categories of foods essential to the anti-inflammatory diet, and the properties of each that are backed by research and by experts in the field.
Vegetables—especially cruciferous vegetables
Veggies provide nutrients that are vital to fighting inflammation and maintaining proper body function. Packed with vitamins and minerals, veggies are also an excellent source of fiber.
Cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, collard greens, and even wasabi are just a few of the varieties in a group of plants called cruciferous vegetables. These veggies are recognizable for their pungent odor and sometimes bitter flavor and are often touted for their anti-cancer properties. These nutrient-rich veggies contain carotenoids, a type of antioxidant, vitamin C, E, K, folate, minerals, and fiber.
Fibrous foods—especially legumes
A staple of the Mediterranean and the anti-inflammatory diet, legumes are a category of vegetables that includes beans, peas, and lentils. Legumes provide some of the highest natural sources of fiber found in any food and also provide an excellent source of plant-based protein.
Fiber is key to reducing inflammation, and the consumption of legumes has been shown to have an impact on the body’s immune function. A diet high in fiber has even been found to protect against certain cancers, including breast cancer.
Fruit is nature’s candy. Whereas refined sugar is inflammatory and should be avoided on the anti-inflammatory diet, fruit is anti-inflammatory. It helps provide much-needed energy by giving a boost of natural sugar—and you don’t get the sugar crash of a refined sugar product because fruit contains fiber, which slows down the metabolic process and stabilizes blood sugar.
Of all the beautiful fruits available to us, berries are the star of the show to reduce inflammation. Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, and raspberries are high in antioxidants and are just a few of the many berries that are suggested as part of an anti-inflammatory diet. Additionally, the anthocyanins that produce berries’ beautiful colors are also a powerful phytochemical that may provide anti-inflammatory properties.
Herbs and Spices—especially turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and garlic
Often overlooked as a source of nutrition, herbs and spices provide excellent anti-inflammatory properties. In addition to eating a wide variety of veggies and fruits, Komar shares, “It is also important to incorporate herbs and spices such as turmeric, garlic, ginger, and cinnamon to help decrease inflammation.”
- Turmeric is a major source of curcumin, a micro-nutrient that has long been known for its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. When adding turmeric to recipes, also add a pinch of black pepper to boost absorption of curcumin.
- Ginger is a root that can reduce inflammation and pain, making it extremely helpful to those working to reduce chronic inflammation. Studies have also found that consuming ginger helps alleviate the nausea and vomiting that many patients experience during chemotherapy treatments for cancer.
- Cinnamon is a spice that has been commonly used since 2800 BC. It is being studied for its potential in cancer therapy and has been shown to have anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
- Garlic isn’t just a delicious way to add depth of flavor to your dishes, it’s a rich source of selenium with sulfur-containing compounds that are being studied for their possible effect on carcinogens.
Lean protein—especially fish
Protein is vital to the formation, maintenance, and repair of body tissues. Ensuring that you get an adequate amount of protein in your daily diet is especially important as we age in order to maintain muscle mass.
In addition to being an excellent source of lean protein, fatty fish is also high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are essential to lowering inflammation. Fatty seafood like salmon, trout, albacore tuna, Atlantic herring, Atlantic mackerel, anchovies, sardines, and even mussels, provide an excellent dietary source of omega-threes and lean protein.
Inflammatory foods to limit
It is typically best to adopt a positive mindset of including as many anti-inflammatory, whole foods as possible in your diet to weed out the inflammatory foods. But it’s also helpful to recognize the foods that are the biggest contributors to inflammation limit them in your everyday diet.
Natural sugars found in fruit are not inflammatory in nature. However, when we look at refined sugars, the story is different. Refined sugars include cane sugar, granulated sugar, powdered sugar, brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup... the list goes on.
With no nutrients or fiber to slow down the absorption process, these products offer little to no nutritional value, and consumption of refined sugars has been associated with increased inflammation leading to higher instances of heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive decline. Look at labels when purchasing packaged foods—manufacturers often sneak in added sugar to make products more shelf-stable.
Processed and ultra-processed foods
The more a food transforms from its original source before you eat it, the more likely it is to cause inflammation. A recent study found that a higher intake of ultra-processed foods was associated with a higher risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
The majority of packaged foods, fast foods, and industrially-created ingredients are processed or ultra-processed. Avoid the worst of these by reading labels and choosing foods with the lowest number of ingredients (ingredients you know and can pronounce and that do not include added sugar).
Additionally, there is a link between ultra-processed foods and sugars: Ultra-processed foods make up 90% of the added sugars that Americans consume. If you cut out the ultra-processed foods, you go a long way in cutting out the added sugar.
While whole grains are recommended for their anti-inflammatory properties, research shows that the intake of refined grains is associated with pro-inflammatory effects.
Avoid foods or goods made with white flour, white rice, and pasta and scan labels for the word “enriched.” If an item has been “enriched,” it means that nutrients were taken out in processing and then added back in during production. This signals a refined grain product and should be avoided.
Trans fats are oils that have been altered chemically during processing and studies indicate that they are directly linked to systemic inflammation in women.
Fast foods, fried foods, packaged snacks, bakery goods, shortening, and margarine are common sources of trans fats. Additionally, packaged foods with ingredients shown as “hydrogenated” or “partially-hydrogenated” are indicators that the food contains trans fats.
The bottom line
Take care of yourself and take care of your body with daily practices that will reduce inflammation.
If you or someone you love is dealing with a chronic condition, it is important to work with your physician to develop the best possible treatment plan. Ask your doctor for a referral to a registered dietitian to receive a nutrition treatment plan designed specifically for you and that works with your personal needs and preferences.
About the experts in this article:
Shayna Komar, RD, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian based in Atlanta, Georgia. She completed her undergraduate degree in Nutrition, Foods, and Exercise at Virginia Tech and her dietetic internship at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Shayna currently contracts with Cancer Wellness of Piedmont Hospital where she provides individual nutrition counseling, cooking classes and group lectures for cancer patients and caregivers. She was the proud recipient of the 2006 Distinguished Dietitian of the Year Award from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. In 2019, Shayna was one of the “Top 10 Dietitians of the Year” from Today’s Dietitian. She is on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetic Speakers' Bureau for oncology dietitians and speaks all over the country. Shayna has been featured as a nutrition expert on Fox News Atlanta, CNN Accent Health, WSBTV Radio, and most recently, 11Alive Atlanta and Company. She writes weekly with her colleague, Chef Nancy Waldeck, on their blog livingandeatingwell.com and she's an avid fitness enthusiast who has been teaching group fitness classes for 20 years.
Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is a registered dietitian and culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify the concept of healthy eating. She serves as a contributing editor for Cooking Light and Real Simple and won a James Beard Award for her 2016 article “Brain Health.” She also develops content for a variety of media outlets and lifestyle brands such as Real Simple, Parents, Rally Health, Eating Well, eMeals, and Health. Other work includes nutrient analysis, recipe development, and writing, including her newest cookbook Meals That Heal which focuses on using the healing aspects of food with a quick, easy and practical approach. Carolyn is also a tenured faculty member at a local college teaching culinary arts and nutrition classes.
Julie Floyd Jones is an Atlanta, Georgia based Certified Corporate Wellness Specialist, Certified Personal Trainer and Certified Yoga Instructor. Julie is the Program Director for Excellence in Exercise where she works with corporate partners to provide wellness solutions for employees globally. She is the founder of Training & Champagning Curated Wellness Retreats and Thrive.