We all know that our diets should contain plenty of vegetables, fruits and whole grains. In addition to the fact that these foods are chock-full of healthy things like vitamins and fiber, they share another important quality: they're part of an anti-inflammatory diet.
In recent years, you may have heard a lot of buzz about this type of diet — but what exactly is an anti-inflammatory diet? What foods are included?
"Unlike some other diets, an anti-inflammatory diet's main focus isn't weight loss," says Suneetha Jasty, MD, a rheumatologist at Main Line Health.
Here's what you need to know about inflammation, the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet and how reducing inflammation can improve your health.
What is inflammation?
If you've ever gotten a cut, you've probably seen the skin around your cut get red and swollen — that's inflammation. It's a normal part of your body's immune response that helps prevent infection and further damage to your cells.
Usually, this inflammation only happens when you have some kind of wound and it's supposed to end when the wound is healed. If your body starts this inflammatory response when you aren't injured or it continues after your wound has healed, it's known as chronic inflammation.
"Chronic inflammation can last months or even years," says Dr. Jasty. "It's linked to several leading causes of death, including cancer, heart attacks, stroke and diabetes."
In addition, it's a key component of several debilitating conditions, like rheumatoid arthritis, Alzheimer's disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD).
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
There isn't any one diet called the "anti-inflammatory diet." Instead, eating an anti-inflammatory diet means eating foods that fight inflammation and avoiding foods that cause inflammation.
Anti-inflammatory foods contain things like fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. These reduce inflammatory proteins in your body and increase antioxidants, which support your immune system and help it function properly. There is increasing scientific evidence showing that polyphenolic compounds like flavonoids, which are found in foods including fruits, vegetables, legumes and cocoa, can have anti-inflammatory properties. Your diet can influence different stages of inflammation and can have an important impact on several inflammatory diseases.
While there are many types of anti-inflammatory diets, researchers have identified certain foods that may help control inflammation, which can lead to pain. Many of these foods are commonly found in the Mediterranean diet.
The Mediterranean diet is characterized by a high consumption of whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish, lean meat, dairy, olive oil, fruits and vegetable. The diet also includes moderate alcohol consumption, mainly in terms of red wine. This makes the diet a source of high-quality fatty acids (i.e., omega-3 and omega-9), fiber, complex carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals.
Vegetarian and vegan diets also contain many of these anti-inflammatory foods.
Foods that cause inflammation
Though many foods may fall somewhere in the middle of the inflammatory foods spectrum, there are some foods that cause significant inflammation.
If you're on an anti-inflammatory diet, avoid or minimize these foods:
- Refined carbohydrates, like white bread and crackers
- Red and processed meat, like beef, deli meat and bacon
- Full-fat dairy products, especially those high in saturated fat, like certain cheeses and cream
- Foods high in trans fats, like fried foods, fast food, margarine and commercially baked goods
Benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet
Inflammation — especially chronic — is associated with pain and certain diseases. Making an anti-inflammatory diet a part of your life is associated with many benefits, including:
Lower risk of chronic disease
Eating anti-inflammatory foods has been shown to lower your risk of certain chronic (or long-lasting) diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes and some cancers, especially colorectal cancers.
"When it comes to diabetes, eating anti-inflammatory foods can make it less likely that you'll develop Type 2 diabetes," says Dr. Jasty.
They also seem to help protect your brain and lower your risk for dementia and Alzheimer's disease, another chronic disease.
Improve outcomes for existing chronic disease
If you already have a chronic illness like diabetes, eating an anti-inflammatory diet can lessen symptoms and slow the disease's progress.
Inflammation is also a key part of other chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and rheumatological diseases like rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Eating foods that fight inflammation and avoiding foods that cause inflammation can ease your symptoms.
Since pain is a common symptom of inflammation, lessening the inflammation in your body can alleviate pain. This can happen whether your pain is due to a chronic illness like RA or even if you just have chronic pain.
Studies have shown that the Mediterranean diets tends to have a greater effect on pain compared to both vegetarian and vegan diets.
Enhance heart health
With heart disease being the number one cause of death in the United States, you can take steps to improve your cardiovascular health by eating an anti-inflammatory diet, which can help to lower your risk of heart disease and high blood pressure.
Making anti-inflammatory foods part of your diet
You've probably heard countless times that natural, unprocessed foods, like leafy greens, fruits, lean meats and whole grains, should make up the bulk of your diet.
As it turns out, eating these nutrient-rich foods has the added benefit of helping to prevent and fight inflammation and inflammation-linked diseases, like rheumatoid arthritis, certain types of cancer and heart disease.
"While you should speak with your healthcare provider before starting a specific diet, adding anti-inflammatory foods — and limiting those that cause inflammation — is a healthy step you can take today," says Dr. Jasty.