Anti-Inflammatory Diet: The Truth About Food and Inflammation

Does what we eat affect how much inflammation is in our body? Probably. But because the relationship between food and inflammation is complex and not yet well understood, anti-inflammatory diets can still be controversial. Unfortunately, there isn’t yet a known cure for all of our inflammatory problems.

What’s not controversial is that eating nutrient-dense balanced meals recommended by many anti-inflammatory diet approaches is probably beneficial to our health in multiple ways.

What is Inflammation and Why Does it Matter?

Inflammation is a response created by our immune system that helps to protect us when we are faced with some kind of threat - like an infection, injury, or toxin. This is a good kind of inflammation because it helps to attack and remove things that are dangerous to us.

However when inflammation persists for too long it can start causing us harm. Chronic inflammation happens when the immune system continues to be triggered by what it thinks is a threat. The best way to get rid of this harmful immune response is to eliminate this trigger.

For example, someone that is allergic to nickel jewelry will probably keep having an itchy red inflammatory response on their skin until they remove the jewelry that’s causing the reaction. Similarly, people with celiac disease, (a health condition caused by an allergy to gluten) will continue to have their gut damaged by their immune system until they stop eating gluten.

How Does Diet Affect Inflammation in Your Body?

Certain foods may stimulate more pro-inflammatory markers than others. Additionally, obesity and chronic diseases (like diabetes and high blood pressure) that are often caused by a diet high in these unhealthy foods also likely cause further inflammation.

How Obesity Influences Inflammation

Extra fat tissue in people who are overweight or obese may in of itself gear our bodies up towards an over-inflammatory state. Fat tissue is full of inflammatory cells, which may be more active in people with higher body fat compositions (1).

Being overweight is also a major risk factor for most common chronic diseases including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, and diabetes all of which also seem to contribute to a pro-inflammatory state.

An example of this that may be easy to imagine is high cholesterol. Try to visualize too much cholesterol as chunks of fat in your blood vessels which turn into large globs called plaques. Your body may start to see these plaques as foreign objects (because let’s be honest, they’re not supposed to be there), and send out an inflammatory response to remove them.

Unfortunately, this inflammatory response is unable to get rid of this cholesterol plaque and because the threat isn’t resolved the inflammatory response may persist creating chronic inflammation. Over time, this can damage the blood vessels containing the cholesterol plaque.

So what’s the solution? Lowering your cholesterol through weight loss, diet, and exercise can get rid of the plaque all together, and the inflammatory response with it.

What’s the Best Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

When it comes to inflammation, one answer doesn’t fit all.

The Mediterranean diet is probably the most well-studied and most supported approach that incorporates the major foods thought to reduce inflammation. In fact, the arthritis foundation recommends this diet as a tool to potentially help treat inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.

Research has shown that people who follow the Mediterranean diet are also more likely to have lower levels of inflammatory markers and may be less likely to have heart disease. But these relationships are still not well understood and ongoing research is needed to see how food influences different aspects of inflammation (2).

The auto-immune protocol (AIP) is another example of a diet that is thought by many to be anti-inflammatory and potentially help treat some auto-immune disorders.

However there isn’t any good evidence that this diet and many others claiming to treat health conditions are effective. It also eliminates many foods that are nutrient-rich and considered to be very healthy including nightshade vegetables like eggplant. In this way some of these fad diets that aren't well supported with science can be harmful if they exclude too many healthy options that are part of a balanced diet. 

However, many people do report feeling better on an AIP diet. As long as you’re following basic diet principles and getting the micronutrients you need, the AIP diet and many others can still be a healthy approach. It's always important to talk to a doctor or a dietitian if you're making major changes to your diet to make sure you're approach is safe and you're getting all of the nutrients you need.  

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Food Pyramid

A food pyramid is a graphical representation of how much of each type of food we should be eating. For example, treats like dark chocolate that should be eaten in small quantities belong at the top of the pyramid because they represent the smallest amount of food we should be consuming.

Most anti-inflammatory diets recommend something similar to this:

food pyramid-1

What to Eat on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

What foods are included in a diet that claims to fight inflammation?

Read this article for more info on 50 anti-inflammatory foods to add to your shopping list. But in general, they come from these 6 categories.

1. Fish 

High levels of omega-3 fatty acids make some fish special. Omega-3 fatty acids seem to have a powerfully positive influence on us and have actually been shown to help lower cholesterol as well as decrease our risk of heart disease and even cardiac death (3).

Fish are also packed with protein and other rich nutrients while maintaining relatively low calories.

2. Fruits

Fruits contain a plethora of essential micronutrients and are packed with antioxidants. (4).

3. Vegetables

Among a variety of micronutrient goodness including both vitamins and minerals, veggies, and vegetable oil also have phytochemicals that are thought to have anti-inflammatory effects (5).

4. Nuts

Nuts are another great source of ‘good’ fat (monosaturated) and some even have omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain dense amounts of protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals (6).

5. Beans

Similar to vegetables, beans also have phytochemicals along with fiber, vitamins, and minerals, all of which may be anti-inflammatory (7).

6. Whole Grains

Not only have studies shown that whole grains can decrease inflammatory markers, but they also decrease our risk of chronic diseases like obesity, heart disease and stroke (8, 9, 10). 

Worst Foods for Inflammation: Anti-Inflammatory Diet Foods to Avoid 

In general, fast food, fried or highly processed foods, and anything with a lot of added sugar are thought not only to contribute to an unhealthy diet but also to contribute to inflammation.  

1. Unhealthy Fats

Saturated and trans fats are generally considered ‘bad’ fats as they contribute to making the bad type of cholesterol worse (LDL) and offer very few nutrients for very high calories.

Fatty red meat and fried foods are examples of unhealthy fats (11).

2. Ultra-Processed Foods

Extensively processed foods may contribute to promoting additional inflammation in our bodies.  An example of this is processed white bread (12, 13).

3. Added Sugar

Providing no nutritional value while adding all too many calories and also spiking insulin, added sugar should generally be avoided and is thought to pro-inflammatory. (14).

Learn more about what to avoid in this article on 35 foods that cause inflammation.

Bottom Line

Scientists still have a ways to go in fully understanding the complexities between how what we eat affects inflammation. However maintaining a healthy weight through a healthy diet, regular exercise, and lifestyle practices that limit exposure to unwanted toxins is probably the best way to battle unhealthy inflammation.