Should You Be Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

We often think of a diet as simply a way to lose weight. But certain ones — anti-inflammatory diets, to be specific — can also help reduce low levels of inflammation that, left unchecked, can quietly wreak havoc on your body over time.

"Studies show that people who eat an anti-inflammatory diet have a decreased risk of many chronic health conditions, including heart disease," says Dr. Karla Saint Andre, an endocrinologist at Houston Methodist. "These diets can also help better manage and improve diabetes, arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), joint pain and more."

To fully appreciate the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet, it helps to understand why — and when — inflammation can lead to problems in your body and how certain eating habits counteract that.

What is inflammation?

Inflammation isn't always bad. It's part of your body's natural defense against things that adversely affect your health, like the bacteria, viruses and parasites that cause disease.

But it can lead to problems when it persists.

"Chronic inflammation is essentially when your body is in an extended state of stress," explains Dr. Saint Andre. "For one reason or another, it's making more pro-inflammatory substances than anti-inflammatory ones. This imbalance leads to inflammation throughout the body."

This type of inflammation isn't helpful. It's hurtful, actually. Chronic inflammation is linked to a range of health conditions, including:

  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis
  • Dementia
  • Depression
  • Certain types of cancer
  • Liver disease
  • Kidney disease

What causes chronic inflammation? For starters, certain health conditions that lead to an overactive immune system. But believe it or not, so can your diet. In fact, what you eat — as well as how much you eat — can play a bigger role in low-grade chronic inflammation than you may realize.

It's why Dr. Saint Andre and other health experts recommend following an anti-inflammatory way of eating — whether or not you have preexisting health issues.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

The term "anti-inflammatory" means to reduce inflammation. An anti-inflammatory diet, then, is when you eat foods that fight inflammation and limit the ones known to cause it.

What does this look like exactly?

Anti-inflammatory diet foods include:

  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Healthy fats, such as olive oil
  • Whole grains
  • Lean protein sources
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Herbs and spices

If you're looking at this list thinking it mirrors a plant-based diet, you're right. In fact, one of the best anti-inflammatory diets — the Mediterranean diet — is considered to be plant-based.

"The Mediterranean diet is one that's heavy on plants, whole grains and fresh, unprocessed foods," says Dr. Saint Andre. "Studies show that this diet reduces the risk of heart disease, and one big reason for this is thought to be because this diet is more anti-inflammatory than pro-inflammatory."

The Mediterranean diet doesn't eliminate meat, but it's typically eaten in fairly limited quantities, especially when compared to the standard American diet. Additionally, the protein options prioritized contain less saturated fat and more omega-3 fats, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and certain tunas.

Important to note is that the list of anti-inflammatory foods above is missing a pretty common category: packaged, processed foods.

"To make an anti-inflammatory diet effective but still realistic, my rule of thumb is that 80% of your diet should be comprised of the whole, natural foods above," says Dr. Saint Andre. "The other 20% can be the processed foods and treats you like to eat. But these foods shouldn't be the majority of your diet."

It's all worth it. This diet comes with many perks, ranging from promoting a healthy gut, immune system and weight to improving sleep and mental health. The benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet also include a reduced risk of several health conditions and better management of many others.

"I prefer to look at it as an anti-inflammatory eating pattern instead of a diet, actually," says Dr. Saint Andre. "And it should be part of an overall anti-inflammatory approach to your lifestyle, including other healthy habits like regular exercise, stress management, adequate sleep and avoidance of toxic habits like smoking and excessive alcohol."

What are the worst foods for inflammation?

Key to this eating pattern is also knowing what foods cause inflammation — that is, the foods you should therefore limit.

The foods to avoid on an anti-inflammatory diet include:

  • Red meat, such as beef, pork, lamb and venison
  • Processed meat, including bacon, hot dogs and deli meat
  • Refined grains, including white bread, white rice and white pasta and breakfast cereals
  • Snack foods, including chips, cookies, crackers and pastries
  • Full-sugar sodas and other sweetened beverages
  • Fried foods, including fast food
  • Excessive amounts of alcohol
  • Foods containing dairy or gluten, if intolerant to either of these

You're not alone if you're wondering how these foods cause inflammation in the body exactly. It's complicated, but Dr. Saint Andre boils it down two main things:

  • The weight gain these foods can easily (and often do) lead to
  • The processed (therefore, foreign) nature of these foods

Most of the foods in the list above are calorie-dense but not nutrient-dense, meaning they're high in calories but not nutritional. Often times, they're not nutritious whatsoever, full of empty calories. What's more is that they're manufactured to taste good — really good — so, we tend to be more likely to overeat them. Together, these factors can easily lead to weight gain.

(Related: Are Your Taste Buds Sabotaging You From Eating Healthier?)

"As our weight increases, so does the amount of visceral fat in our body," warns Dr. Saint Andre. "Visceral fat is toxic. It's very bad."

You probably know visceral fat better as that stubborn belly fat that's hard to lose. It accumulates at the waistline, deep within the abdominal cavity.

"Visceral fat doesn't just sit there. These cells are biologically active, secreting hormones and other substances that can put the body into an inflammatory state," says Dr. Saint Andre. "This type of fat can also deposit inside and between organs — the pancreas, liver, intestines and more. When this happens, the inflammation these cells trigger can cause dysfunction of these organs, contributing to issues like insulin deficiency and, eventually, type 2 diabetes."

The additives found in the foods above can more directly lead to inflammation, too. Added to processed foods are often huge amounts of salt, refined sugar and saturated fat, not to mention preservatives we really don't know a lot about yet.

This matters because our bodies aren't used to dealing with these man-made and artificially-added components, especially in the amounts we often eat them. For instance, consuming certain foods in the list above results in getting 10 times more sugar than eating a piece of fruit. And to make matters worse, it's refined sugar that our body essentially sees as foreign.

At such high levels, added sugars, saturated fat, salt and preservatives trigger the production of the pro-inflammatory substances that contribute to chronic inflammation.

(Related: What Happens If You Eat Too Much Salt?)

"Humans have been metabolizing food for a long time, but real, natural food, right? Not the fake ingredients found in packaged, processed foods," says Dr. Saint Andre. "Our bodies recognize and know how to metabolize vegetables, fruits and whole grains. And when consumed in proper portions, these foods also aren't likely to contribute to weight gain."

Unfortunately, the foods worst for inflammation are some of the most prevalent ones found in our diets today. Almost 60% of the average American's calories come from processed foods, according to the NIH. But by following an anti-inflammatory diet, full of plant-based sources of protein, fat, fiber and carbohydrates — as well as lean meat in moderation — you can change that.

Who should follow an anti-inflammatory diet?

"An anti-inflammatory lifestyle benefits everyone, and anti-inflammatory eating habits, in particular, are appropriate for just about anyone," says Dr. Saint Andre. "The only exception is for people who have certain health conditions, like a GI condition that prevents them from eating a high-fiber diet, such as gastroparesis, or familial hypercholesterolemia, since fats, even healthy ones, need to be limited."

So while an anti-inflammatory diet is beneficial for most people, each person's nutritional needs and health status are unique. What works well for someone else may not be appropriate for you. Work with your doctor to understand whether an anti-inflammatory diet is right for you.

Some specialists might actually strongly recommend this diet for you, particularly if you have a health condition associated with chronic inflammation.

"I recommend an anti-inflammatory diet to all of my diabetes patients, unless they have one of the conditions mentioned above," says Dr. Saint Andre. "It's also strongly recommended for people with heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, psoriasis, asthma, fatty liver disease, polycystic ovary syndrome, joint pain and more."

May 11, 2023