You’ve probably heard the phrase “anti-inflammatory food” or “anti-inflammatory diet” at one point or another recently, but may be wondering what makes a food anti-inflammatory (or inflammatory, for that matter). Let’s discuss the basics of inflammation and some tips for getting started in following an anti-inflammatory eating pattern.
Written by: Stacey Simon, MS RDN CSG CDN
What is inflammation?
Before exploring anti-inflammatory eating, we must first understand what inflammation is, and how it can impact our health. When thinking about inflammation, we can think of two types: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is a beneficial short-term activation of the immune system that helps defend against bodily harm, such as a bee sting, a scraped knee, the common cold, or the flu. Acute inflammation is necessary to help us heal and recover. When we speak about reducing inflammation in the body, this is not the response we’re thinking of.
Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a long-term, low-grade activation of the immune response that can lead to damage to our bodies and overall lack of health. Often, we don’t experience any signs or symptoms of chronic inflammation, and we cannot always identify chronic inflammation through blood tests or physical examinations, so it often goes undetected.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to many chronic medical conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, certain cancers, and even Alzheimer’s disease. We can make modifications to our lifestyle to help reduce the presence of chronic inflammation. Improving our sleep, reducing stress levels, moving our bodies, stopping smoking, and, of course, following an anti-inflammatory diet can all help to reduce chronic inflammation!
The bottom line: acute inflammation serves a purpose. It serves as a way to protect and heal the body. Chronic inflammation does not heal or protect our bodies, and contributes to the opposite.
What is the “Anti-Inflammatory Diet?”
Unlike many trendy fad diets, the anti-inflammatory diet isn’t one specific diet, at all. Rather, it’s an eating pattern that emphasizes incorporating more foods that reduce inflammation and limiting foods that may increase chronic inflammation in our bodies. Rather than following a strict diet, the anti-inflammatory eating pattern allows you to choose foods that you enjoy. Remember that your diet certainly doesn’t have to be perfect to reduce inflammation and improve your overall health; all foods can find a place in a healthy diet; working with a Registered Dietitian (RD) can help you to find that balance!
While no single “anti-inflammatory diet” definition exists, you may be familiar with eating patterns like the Mediterranean Diet or the Okinawan Diet, both of which include foods and eating patterns with anti-inflammatory properties, including lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats, and less red meat and added sugar.
The goal is to eat more anti-inflammatory foods and less inflammatory foods. Here, we’ll share some tips to get you started.
Tips for Anti-Inflammatory Eating:
- Increase fruit and vegetable intake: We’ve all heard the vast benefits of eating our fruits and vegetables, and we can add “reducing inflammation” to the list of benefits. Plants contain substances called antioxidants that can help reduce the effect of free radicals in our bodies. Choose a variety of colors when incorporating produce into the diet to get a variety of different antioxidants. Opt for vibrant colors, like berries, leafy greens, oranges, and bell peppers, among other favorites.
Choose healthy fats: When thinking about reducing inflammation, healthy fats are one of the first things that come to mind. Not only do we want to choose more healthy (think: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) fats, we want to swap out unhealthy saturated fats with these healthier options. Omega-3 fatty acids found in fatty fish like salmon, tuna, rainbow trout, and mackerel help to lower inflammation in our bodies. Opt for healthy cooking oils like olive and avocado, and incorporate nuts, seeds, and seaweed into the diet, as well. Nuts and seeds have vitamins and minerals and omega-3 fatty acids to help reduce inflammation.
Opt for whole grains: You may have heard that “refined carbohydrates” contribute to inflammation, and this can be true. Instead of processed grains like cakes, pies, sweets, and bagels, look for the opportunity to swap in whole grains instead. Whole grains contain all parts of the grain, including the bran, germ, and endosperm, making them higher in fiber and vitamins which can reduce inflammation. Of course, this doesn’t mean you can never enjoy that bagel again; all things can be enjoyed in moderation!
Go for lean and plant-based proteins: You’ve probably heard about the potential benefits of consuming a “plant-based” diet, and reducing inflammation is one of them. Opt for plant-based proteins like lentils, beans, peas, nuts, and seeds when feasible; consider starting off with “Meatless Monday” dinners. Of course, animal proteins are a healthy part of a balanced diet, too, especially if you’re recovering from surgery or have higher protein needs. Choose lean sources of protein like fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, and small amounts of lean beef. Aim to limit more inflammatory protein foods like processed and fatty meats.
Hydrate with the right beverages: Water should be our primary source of hydration, but other beverages can also help to reduce chronic inflammation. Teas contain antioxidants and polyphenols, so enjoying black, green, and white teas and herbal teas can be a nice addition to plain H2O. If you’re not a water drinker, try infusing water with fruits, herbs, or other flavors that you enjoy.
Include herbs and spices: Did you know that those spices in your pantry or garden are antioxidant powerhouses? Herbs and spices can help to reduce inflammation and improve flavor of the foods we enjoy every day. Turmeric, ginger, cayenne, garlic, oregano, and many more have anti-inflammatory properties. What’s more, using spices instead of salt can improve your heart health!
Limit inflammatory foods: Aim to make the majority of your diet anti-inflammatory foods, limiting more inflammatory foods such as added sugar, processed foods, and convenience foods. Of course, this doesn’t mean that your favorite fun foods are off limits; rather, enjoy them mindfully, stop when satisfied, and eat without distractions.
Eating in an anti-inflammatory way can help to reduce chronic inflammation in our bodies, help manage chronic medical conditions, and even help reduce pain and swelling in our bodies! Begin with 1-2 changes that feel most realistic and build upon those changes. Working with a Registered Dietitian can help you to accomplish your nutrition goals while maintaining joy and satisfaction in your eating!
If you would like to read more by Stacey see:
Ask an RD: What are the Top Nutrition Tips for a Healthy Heart?