Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Everything You Need to Know
Written by Toni Sicola
on December 09, 2019
An anti-inflammatory diet, in an ideal world, would just be the way people eat: clean, organic foods, heavy on the veggies and minimal processing, mostly alkalized ingredients. Unfortunately, that’s not how most people (especially Americans) choose to eat.
Whether it’s because of food access issues, perceived financial barriers, or just a lack of knowledge about this topic, most Americans consume far more inflammatory foods than they should, resulting in a ton of physical stress on their bodies, inside and out.
Understanding what causes inflammation and the effect it can have on your body is the first step in deciding to make a positive change for your health. Then it’s time to choose the right foods. Choosing an eating plan to help put out the fires of chronic inflammation can go a long way to helping you feel better in your body.
What is Inflammation?
So far, we've made inflammation out to be the villain. But in truth, it's there for a reason. It's a normal part of the human immune response and is designed to protect you from harmful invaders. If you've had a fever seen a scraped knee turn red as it's healing, you've seen inflammation in action. The heat that your immune system generates is there to kill off bacteria, protozoa, parasites, viruses, fungi, or any other potentially harmful microscopic invader that you come across.
But these are all examples of acute inflammation. A single thing is coming in for the attack in a single moment, and your body fights it off. In a healthy system, the inflammatory response turns off when the threat recedes. But in the case of an overtaxed system, chronic inflammation can result, potentially leading to a host of health issues.
The Harvard Health Letter, among many other scientific publications, is now calling chronic inflammation a "unifying theory of disease," meaning that it's at the root of just about every chronic disease we face as a society, including obesity, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, cancer, diabetes, and more.
By filling your plate with anti-inflammatory foods and reducing your environmental exposure to harmful inflammatory compounds, you can help reduce your risk factors for inflammatory diseases.
Combatting Chronic Inflammation
Chronic inflammation can result from a barrage of irritants on the system, whether internal or external. According to scientific research, there are four major categories that could be at the root cause of a chronically inflamed system:
- An autoimmune disease has developed, whether hereditary or due to a malfunction in your system. These diseases include things like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease. Autoimmunity occurs when your immune system mistakes healthy human tissue as a threat. It turns on the flames and burns up healthy cells.
- Microscopic invaders like the ones we mentioned above have infiltrated your system, and your immune system goes into overdrive and won't turn off.
- Oxidative stress resulting from free radical exposure in your environment or the food you're eating leads to mitochondrial dysfunction. This dysfunction leads to an inability to turn off your immune response.
- You're an active person or athlete sustaining repeated injury and constantly calling upon your immune system to work overtime.
You can counteract these potential issues with a healthy diet and by removing the potential irritants in your home and immediate environment.
Foods to Avoid
Foods to avoid (or at least minimize) on an anti-inflammatory diet include:
- All processed foods (white bread, white pasta, crackers, chips, cereals, etc)
- Excessive grains (even some whole grains, especially those with gluten)
- Excessive alcohol
- Foods containing trans fats
- Fast food
- Large wild fish and farmed fish
- Conventional meat, eggs, and dairy products
- Foods high in sugar
This might seem like a long list, but the list of foods you could be eating instead is a lot longer. It's also a lot more colorful and can be made more delicious too!
Processed foods and fried foods are often made using either trans fats or pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for a healthy diet, the standard American diet (SAD) contains far too many, especially in relation to anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.
Foods rich in omega-6s include grains, vegetable oils and seed oils like soybean oil, canola oil, and corn oil. Ideally, you'll replace these oils with healthier alternatives on an anti-inflammatory diet and avoid eating foods made with these oils (like fast food and other commercially processed and fried foods) by shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and skipping the stuff in bags and boxes.
Sugar is another highly inflammatory food. You already know that too much sugar and simple carbs can lead to type 2 diabetes. Well, studies show that part of this process also includes an overly activated immune system, which can lead to chronic inflammation.
You've likely heard about the risks of mercury consumption when you're eating fish. Tuna is the most famous mercury-having fish, likely because it's affordable and comes in a can, but other high-mercury fish include shark, swordfish, king mackerel, yellowtail, seabass, marlin, and orange roughy. While eating these fish isn't entirely off-limits (unless you're pregnant, nursing, or under the age of six in certain cases), you'll want to keep these fish at a minimum. Mercury is a toxin that can negatively affect brain function and development. Because it's a toxin, it activates your immune system, which isn't ideal on an anti-inflammatory diet.
Conventional farming and ranching practices aren't any better than fish farms. In fact, they're a lot less humane, keeping cows in confined feedlots and pigs and chickens in cages so small they can't turn around or groom themselves. As a result of the stressful environment and unideal feed given to these caged animals (again, corn and soy), these animals need antibiotics to stay alive long enough for the slaughter. You're eating all of this when you consume conventional meat, dairy, and eggs.
Quality is everything when it comes to making sustainable changes in your diet and lifestyle. Let's start with diet and finding delicious replacement foods for the ones we've just eliminated above. First and foremost, you'll want to focus on healthy fat and meat sources, replacing trans fat, excessive omega-6s, and conventional meat products with healthier options. Reducing meat consumption overall may also be helpful when it comes to reducing your inflammatory response.
Eating organic is the most ideal, but we know that the price of organics can add up quickly. Luckily, the Environmental Working Group makes it easy by showing you which produce items to prioritize as organic and which foods are ok to eat conventionally. They do that with their Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen lists. Bookmark those sites. They're super helpful!
Fish, Meat, Dairy, and Eggs
Opt for small, wild-caught fatty fish (like sardines) and shellfish over the larger species for the reasons we've already named. Wild fish are eating their natural diet full of sea algae, seaweed, smaller fish or sea creatures. Fish that eat their natural diets are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than those eating the soy and corn feed given to most farmed fish. Furthermore, farmed fish may be given antibiotics to prevent diseases that occur in commercial fish farm practices. This isn't to say that every fish farm is bad or yields an unhealthy product, but it's important to know where your food comes from. So if you don't know about the fish farm, better to choose wild.
Grass-fed beef and dairy, along with pastured pork, chicken, and eggs, are higher in omega-3s and other beneficial micronutrients than their conventional counterparts. That's because they're eating the foods they're supposed to eat. In the case of cows, they're meant to eat grass. The Mayo Clinic considers grass-fed beef a more heart-healthy food than its corn-fed counterpart. It's leaner, richer in omega-3, richer in conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), and contains more antioxidants, especially vitamin E. Same goes for the dairy products from these cows — surely a different take on red meat and dairy fat than you're used to hearing when it comes to cardiovascular disease.
Pigs and chickens are omnivores and meant to have more diverse diets. Like cows, they're also meant to wander in the pastures and graze in the sunshine. Exposure to the sun means that there's more vitamin D in pastured animals and the eggs the chickens produce. Pastured chickens, the eggs they produce, and pastured pork are all richer in omega-3s, CLA, and antioxidants just like the cows as well.
We've already mentioned shopping on the perimeter of the grocery store and trying to avoid the central aisles. That's because the central aisles are filled with packaged, processed foods that can spike your blood sugar and set off an inflammatory cascade that you're trying to avoid on this diet plan. Alkalizing, antioxidant-rich foods exist in every color of the rainbow in the produce section of your local grocer.
Just about any healthy eating plan worth its salt recommends loading up on whole foods like veggies and fruit, and an anti-inflammatory diet is no different. Leafy greens and other colorful fruits and veggies are the key to fight inflammation through your diet. Try to fill 1/2 to 2/3 of your plate with non-starchy veggies at every meal. This includes:
- cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, cabbage, and collard greens)
- lettuces and other leafy greens (arugula, chard, endive, radicchio, beet greens)
- squash (zucchini, yellow squash, pumpkin)
Starch can get tricky, as certain high-carb foods can spike your blood sugar and create an inflammatory response. That being said, there are a number of starchy vegetables that are rich in phytonutrients that can help alkalize your system and keep inflammation at bay. These include:
- sweet potatoes and yams
- winter squash (butternut, acorn, spaghetti, delicata)
- celery root
- Jerusalem artichokes
Eating a variety of fruit is a great way to get your sugar fix without going overboard on the sweets. Just stick to the whole fruit and skip fruit juice. Fruit juice is all the sugar and none of the fiber, which is not ideal. The only exceptions are lemon and lime juice, and possibly tart cherry and cranberry juice if you're using those for therapeutic reasons. Berries are particularly beneficial because they have a great fiber to sugar ratio and will be less likely to spike your blood sugar. Importantly, avocado is technically a fruit, so don't skimp on that one! Fruits to enjoy on this diet plan include:
- berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- apple (stick to about the size of a baseball)
- citrus (orange, mandarin, lemon, lime, etc)
- tropical fruit (banana, mango, papaya, passion fruit, etc)
- stonefruit (peach, nectarine, plumb, all hybrids)
Extras include healthy fats and treats like an occasional glass of red wine or dark chocolate. Red wine and dark chocolate (at least 70%) are both very high in antioxidants, which help fight free radicals in your body that cause inflammation and damage to your cells. Red wine is particularly known for an antioxidant found in the skin of its fruit called resveratrol. This nutrient has been studied for its potentially positive effects on arresting cancer growth, but a lot more work in this area needs to be done before it's viewed as conclusively beneficial.
Healthy fats like extra virgin olive oil are the reason the Mediterranean diet is so popular among health experts. The most ideal fats to consume on this diet are:
- olive oil
- coconut oil
- avocado oil
- grapeseed oil
- flaxseed oil (for salad dressing or drizzling. Don't cook with it.)
- fish oil (best as a supplement)
Herbs and Spices
In addition to making some big swaps in your grocery cart, there are a number of herbs and spices that will help move inflammation out over time. That's because they're rich in powerful antioxidants. We mentioned oxidative stress as one of the four major causes of chronic inflammation, so a diet rich in antioxidants, which neutralize free radicals and reduce oxidative stress is, by definition, anti-inflammatory.
Herbs and supplements aren't regulated by the FDA, so the best way to show their efficacy without making health claims is to share the research.
The following anti-inflammatory herbs have loads of research to back them up:
- turmeric: studied for its positive effects on reducing inflammation in oral health, neurological health, and cancer-fighting properties
- black pepper: studied for its positive effects on digestion, arresting tumor growth, gut health, and aiding in the absorption of other beneficial compounds
- gingerroot: studied for its ability to reduce post-workout muscle pain, its anti-cancer properties, and its heart health benefit
- matcha green tea: studied for its beneficial effects in the categories of cancer, weight loss, cholesterol levels, and blood pressure
- white willow bark: the original ingredient in aspirin, this herb is an anti-inflammatory, antipyretic, and analgesic, all without the negative digestive consequences of using NSAIDs like aspirin.
- peppers (capsaicin): shown to inhibit inflammatory pathways as well as NSAIDs, but more work needs to be done to understand dosing.
An Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Lifestyle
In addition to making some food substitutions, it's important to reduce your exposure to potential irritants that could be causing inflammation in your body. This includes toxic chemicals like detergents, cleaning products, dry-cleaning chemicals, water pollutants, and air pollutants. By making the switch to green cleaning products, choosing an eco-friendly dry cleaner, and adding a water purifier in your kitchen, you can dramatically reduce your daily toxic exposure.
Taking these steps alongside the anti-inflammatory diet that we've laid out for you is the best way to prevent, reduce, and combat chronic inflammation.
Author: Toni Sicola
|Toni is a wellness professional with a Master's in Integrative Health, is passionate about spreading health, happiness, and personal fulfillment to as many people as possible. She has a professional background in health and wellness, dietary supplements, and nutrition, and embarks every day to live a well, balanced, happy life.|