An anti-inflammatory diet consists of fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds and healthy fat and is thought to aid in reducing the risk of disease associated with chronic inflammation.
Even though you may be familiar with the term anti-inflammatory diet, there’s a lot to learn about inflammation, including what causes it and how factors like diet can either help reduce inflammation or make it worse.
What is Inflammation?
There are two different types of inflammation—acute (short-term) inflammation and chronic (long-term) inflammation.
Acute inflammation is how your body protects itself when you’re sick or injured. This type of inflammation resolves once the “threat,” like a virus or an injury, has passed.
Chronic inflammation is low-grade and persistent inflammation in the body that damages tissues and organs over time. Chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage overtime and lead to a number of health conditions, including certain cancers and heart disease.1
Many factors can cause or worsen chronic inflammation, including:1
- Old age
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Exposure to toxins like pollution
- Leading a sedentary lifestyle
- Eating a diet full of inflammatory foods like soda, fast food, fried foods, processed meat products, sugary baked goods, and candy
Antioxidants and Free Radicals
Your body needs a balance between free radicals and compounds called antioxidants in order to function optimally and protect itself from disease.
Free radicals are generated from normal biochemical reactions in the body and are also produced in response to environmental factors like sun exposure. These free radicals break cells down over time.
As you age, your body loses its ability to fight the effects of free radicals, resulting in more free radicals, more oxidative stress, and more damage to cells, which leads to cellular damage, as well as “normal” aging. This oxidative stress contributes to chronic inflammation by activating inflammatory pathways in the body.12
Antioxidants help “disarm” these free radicals and other reactive compounds by neutralizing them before they cause damage to lipids, DNA, and proteins.3
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce chronic inflammation and improve your overall health, including eating an anti-inflammatory diet, which is high in antioxidants.
What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
There’s no set definition of an anti-inflammatory diet, but anti-inflammatory eating patterns are generally high in nutrient-dense foods that contain anti-inflammatory compounds, like antioxidants.
Most anti-inflammatory diets are rich in plant foods, especially vegetables and fruits. This is because plant foods are concentrated sources of powerful anti-inflammatory substances that have been shown to reduce markers of inflammation in the body.
For example, people who follow diets high in plant foods, like the Mediterranean diet, tend to have lower levels of inflammatory markers like tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNFα), a protein associated with insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes, and C-reactive protein (CRP), a protein your liver makes when dealing with high levels of inflammation.4
Other foods that are often incorporated into anti-inflammatory diets include spices, herbs, beans, nuts and seeds, and seafood. The omega-3s in fish, for example, help nip inflammation in the bud before it even begins. Omega-3s interfere with cells called leukocytes and enzymes known as cytokines, which are both key players in igniting inflammation in the body.
Products like soda, fast food, fried foods, processed meat products, sugary baked goods, and candy contribute to chronic inflammation. Limiting or removing these from your diet may help reduce inflammation.4
However, this doesn’t mean that your diet has to be free of all foods and beverages that contain pro-inflammatory components. An anti-inflammatory diet should consist mostly of whole, nutritious, anti-inflammatory foods, but you can still enjoy your favorite foods from time to time, even if they’re considered “inflammatory.”
Benefits of Anti-Inflammatory Foods
Certain foods and drinks are high in compounds that help reduce inflammation, including carotenoids like beta-carotene, polyphenols like anthocyanins, minerals like selenium, the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, and vitamins C and D.
Diets rich in berries like blackberries, strawberries, and blueberries have been shown to help reduce inflammatory markers and protect against certain health conditions like heart disease.5 Berries are an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet because they contain anti-inflammatory substances such as anthocyanins, flavonols, and phenolic acids, all of which have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects
Incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet helps reduce inflammation and supports your body’s antioxidant status, which can help keep you healthy and decrease your risk of inflammatory diseases.
Foods That Fight Inflammation
There are a number of foods and beverages that contain protective antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Adding the following foods to your diet could help reduce inflammation:46
- Fruits: berries, apples, oranges, papaya, pomegranate, cherries
- Vegetables: spinach, onions, broccoli, collards, cauliflower, carrots, beets, asparagus, sweet potatoes, peppers
- Healthy fats: avocados, olive oil, flaxseed oil
- Herbs and spices: parsley, cocoa, ginger, garlic, cinnamon, turmeric, basil, saffron, rosemary
- Seafood: sardines, salmon, trout, clams, oysters, mussels
- Seeds, nuts and nut butters: chia seeds, flax seeds, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts
- Whole grains: quinoa, oats, buckwheat
- Legumes: chickpeas, lentils, black beans
- Beverages: green tea, hibiscus tea, pomegranate juice, tart cherry juice, ginger tea
These foods are just a start. There are many other foods and drinks that contain anti-inflammatory substances.
It’s best to create an anti-inflammatory diet that’s rich in a variety of anti-inflammatory foods so that you provide your body with an array of protective compounds and necessary nutrients like protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
Foods to Avoid
Regularly consuming the following foods and drinks may contribute to chronic inflammation:46
- Sugary foods and drinks: soda, cookies, ice cream, energy drinks, candy, sugary cereals
- Fast food: french fries, chicken nuggets, fried chicken, cheeseburgers, etc.
- Refined grain products: white bread, bagels, crackers
- Packaged and convenience foods: chips, sugary granola bars, highly processed frozen meals
- Processed meat products: lunch meats, bacon, beef jerky
- Foods and oils high in omega-6 fats: canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, margarine
- Products high in added salt: canned soups, salty snack foods, salty restaurant and takeout meals
You don’t have to completely cut these foods and drinks from your diet, though it’s best to limit them as much as possible. Consuming inflammatory foods too often can contribute to chronic inflammation.
If you’re not used to eating the anti-inflammatory foods listed above, or your diet is currently high in inflammatory foods, try adding just one or two anti-inflammatory foods to your daily menu and slowly reduce your intake of inflammatory foods like those high in added sugar.
Here’s an example of a one-day anti-inflammatory menu.
- Unsweetened green tea with lemon
- Chia pudding made with cashew milk served with fresh mixed berries, almond butter, cacao nibs, and a sprinkle of cinnamon
- Sparkling water
- A Mediterranean quinoa bowl with pine nuts, arugula, feta, roasted chickpeas, olives, and mixed vegetables
- A protein-packed smoothie made with frozen mixed berries and cherries, unsweetened pea protein powder, and plant milk of choice
- Add a handful of fresh or frozen kale or spinach, a teaspoon of cocoa powder or cinnamon, or half of a sliced avocado for additional anti-inflammatory benefits.
- Water infused with mint and lemon
- Pistachio-crusted salmon served with baked sweet potato and broccoli sauteed in olive oil and garlic
Feel free to experiment with anti-inflammatory foods to create your own healthy diet.
Who Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Good For?
Everyone can benefit from following an anti-inflammatory diet.
Following an eating pattern rich in nutrient-dense foods and limiting inflammatory foods is one of the best ways to keep your body healthy and prevent health conditions like obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and certain cancers.
What’s more, research shows that people with inflammatory health conditions like rheumatoid arthritis significantly benefit from following anti-inflammatory diets and that these eating patterns may help reduce symptoms like pain and improve overall quality of life.7
Even though following an anti-inflammatory diet can improve health and reduce inflammation, there are other factors that contribute to inflammation.
If you’re concerned about chronic inflammation, lifestyle changes like sitting less, getting enough sleep, managing stress levels, and avoiding toxins like cigarette smoke are essential.
When To See a Healthcare Provider
Transitioning to a healthier, anti-inflammatory diet is an excellent way to take care of your body, extend your lifespan, and reduce your risk of a number of health conditions. However, diet alone can’t protect you from all diseases and can’t take the place of medical treatment.
If you have a serious health condition like cancer or an autoimmune disease, an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t enough to keep you healthy and manage your symptoms. Also, diet can’t take the place of necessary medications used to treat inflammatory diseases.
Whether or not you have a health condition, it’s essential to regularly visit your healthcare provider to ensure you’re getting the best care.
If you’re unsure how to start eating healthier, consider working with a registered dietitian. They can help create an anti-inflammatory diet tailored to your specific needs.
A Quick Review
Although short-term inflammation helps protect you when you’re sick or injured, chronic inflammation can harm your health and increase your risk of a number of health conditions.
Fortunately, there are ways to reduce inflammation in the body, including following a nutritious, anti-inflammatory diet.
If you’re interested in transitioning to a more anti-inflammatory way of eating, try incorporating some of the foods listed in this article into your meals and snacks and creating a healthy, inflammation-fighting diet that works for your specific preferences and health needs.