Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet the Best for You?

Proponents of anti-inflammatory diets say they can transform you inside and out.

Tom Brady, Venus Williams, Penélope Cruz, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley have something in common: They've all followed forms of anti-inflammatory (AI) diets at one time or another.

Brady has done an AI diet to boost his performance on the football field. Williams said she followed the plan to help keep her autoimmune disorder in check. And Cruz and Huntington-Whiteley have followed an AI-style detox to keep their skin radiant.

Those celebrity-endorsed diets may be buzzy. But the tenets of an AI diet—more plants, less sugar, no refined stuff—are far from a fad.

"Who needs to eat a more anti-inflammatory diet? Everyone," Barry Sears, PhD, creator of the Zone diet and researcher studying chronic inflammation, told Health

Here's the lowdown on inflammation and how to fight it with an AI diet.

What Is Inflammation?

Believe it or not, inflammation starts as a good thing. Inflammation happens when your immune system sends white blood cells and "warrior" compounds to attack invading viruses, bacteria, or toxins.

A classic example of normal inflammation is pain, heat, redness, and swelling around a wound or injury, like a tender sprained ankle.

"There's a separate response called 'resolution' that brings the dogs of war back to their barracks and heals your tissues," explained Sears. "The first phase of inflammation causes cellular destruction, and the second phase, resolution, begins cellular rejuvenation. As long as those phases are balanced, you stay well."

Your Diet and Inflammation

But for some people, that balance never happens. Sugar, refined grains, and saturated fat can also trigger an inflammatory immune response. The typical standard American diet (SAD) is packed with those ingredients, meaning many people inflame their bodies every time they eat.

Meanwhile, the average American gets way too few fruits and non-starchy vegetables, which pack antioxidants that reduce the initial inflammatory response. Also, fatty fish, a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, can help move your body into the resolution phase.

Air pollution and environmental toxins also trigger your immune system in that way. However, "most of the chronic, extra inflammation in our bodies is diet-related," said Sears. Chronic inflammation can lead to heart disease, anxiety, depression, swelling, and pain in the joints. 

In the gut, chronic inflammation throws off the balance of helpful bacteria. That imbalance damages the lining of the intestines, Mark Hyman, MD, founder and medical director of The UltraWellness Center, told Health. Chronic inflammation may contribute to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), food sensitivity, autoimmune diseases, and obesity.

In contrast, following an anti-inflammatory eating style may reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, and some cancers and may even extend your life.

Other claims about anti-inflammatory diets—for example, that they can reverse autoimmune diseases or improve mental health—have less solid evidence, Frank Hu, MD, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Health.

What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Unlike the Atkins or South Beach diets, there isn't just one specific AI diet. For example, Sears's Zone diet is a highly anti-inflammatory eating plan. The paleo diet and Whole30 diets are both AI diets, too.

But the plan with some of the most research-backed evidence is the traditional Mediterranean diet

The Mediterranean diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, and olive oil. Following the diet results in low levels of the inflammatory markers C-reactive protein and interleukin-6 in the blood.

The Mediterranean diet links to many health benefits, from keeping weight down to slashing heart and stroke risk, added Dr. Hu.

The goals of any AI plan are simple: Cut back on foods that trigger an inflammatory response and eat more foods that heal damage. 

While there are some variations in what's allowed and what isn't, most AI plans incorporate the following:

  • Olive oil
  • Legumes
  • Nuts
  • Unrefined cereals
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Fatty fish
  • Limited to no alcohol intake
  • Limited red and processed meat intake

That said, your plate might look slightly different from your friend's or a co-worker's. However, that's the way it should be, said Dr. Hyman. Some people thrive on a grain-free paleo diet, while others would rather not give up bread.

Also, "people react to foods differently, and if someone has a sensitivity to a particular food, it will lead to cytokine production and an increase in other inflammatory chemicals," added Dr. Hyman. Talk to a healthcare provider if you suspect you have a food sensitivity. They can design an elimination diet to help identify the culprit.

What Are the Goals of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

If you try an AI diet, keep the following tips in mind: 

  • Aim for half to two-thirds of your plate to be non-starchy vegetables: Those vegetables include greens of all kinds, mushrooms, summer squash, beets, and cauliflower. "Try to incorporate those foods into your breakfasts," said Dr. Hyman. Non-starchy vegetables pack gut-balancing fiber and powerful antioxidants.
  • Limit refined sugar: That includes fruit juices and natural sweeteners, like honey, said Dr. Hyman. Some evidence suggests that excessive sugar intake links to inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA), multiple sclerosis (MS), psoriasis, and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
  • Eat fish: Fish, especially fatty kinds like salmon, mackerel, herring, and anchovies, pack omega-3 fatty acids. Or take omega-3 supplements. The daily recommended intake of omega-3 fatty acids is 1,000 milligrams.
  • Nix white flour and limit other flour-based foods: Instead, focus on whole, intact grains like quinoa, brown rice, and bulgur wheat. Even 100% whole-grain flour will cause a spike in blood sugar. High blood sugar exacerbates inflammation, especially for people with insulin resistance or diabetes. So, use them moderately, said Sears.
  • Choose fats carefully: Some of the most abundant saturated fats in our diet contain the same fatty acids as fragments of the cell walls of many bacteria. Limit saturated fats like butter. Also, skip vegetable oils high in omega-6 fats, such as safflower and corn. Instead, go for olive, avocado, or walnut oil.

What Foods To Avoid

All AI diets allow vegetables, fatty fish, and olive oil. In contrast, all AI diets ban processed foods. Still, the foods you can't eat may vary, depending on the specific diet. For example, the following AI diets restrict or limit some foods:

  • Autoimmune protocol: Nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers), nuts, seeds, and eggs
  • Paleo: All grains, dairy, and legumes (chickpeas, lentils, beans, peanuts)
  • The Zone diet: All refined grains and white potatoes
  • Mediterranean diet: Added and refined sugar.

What Foods To Eat

On the other hand, foods that research has found to have strong effects on inflammation include:

  • Spinach
  • Broccoli
  • Kale
  • Carrots
  • Peppers
  • Pumpkin
  • Beans
  • Berries
  • Brown rice

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Benefits

Keep in mind that you don't have to follow any AI diet perfectly to make a big impact. A healthy body is built to handle the occasional onslaught of inflammation, like having a cupcake at a party.

Instead, regular, consistent consumption and overconsumption of inflammatory foods, like sugar and saturated fat, links to serious disease, Sonya Angelone, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Health

"Restricting whole food groups can be triggering," said Angelone. So, eating an overall "super" diet rather than focusing on individual superfoods is important.

Other benefits of reducing inflammation include:

  • Reduces your cancer risk: Some evidence suggests that following an AI diet helps reduce cancer risk, especially gastric and lung cancer in men.
  • Reduces your risk of heart disease: Research has found that people who follow an AI diet have a lower heart disease risk than people who eat a SAD diet. For example, the Mediterranean diet helps lower the risk of heart disease in high-risk groups compared to a reduced-fat diet.
  • Manages a healthy body weight: Going anti-inflammatory doesn't automatically mean you'll drop weight, especially if your weight is in a healthy range. Still, an AI diet that packs vegetables and is low in sugar and refined carbohydrates can help with weight loss goals.

A Quick Review

Inflammation is a normal part of your immune system's response to invaders. Still, inflammation should go away after the immune system has done its job. In contrast, some of the foods you eat can trigger inflammation. When you continuously eat them, your body doesn't have a chance to recover.

Eating an AI diet can reduce inflammation. Go for vegetables, fruits, healthy fats, nuts, and whole grains. Avoid processed foods and refined sugars. Also, an AI diet may reduce your risk of cancer and heart disease and lead to weight loss.

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