What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Inflammation. Anti-inflammatory diet. Pro-inflammatory foods. Inflammation cure.
These buzz phrases are bandied about in reference to diet and health, but what do they really mean?
What is Inflammation?
In a nutshell, inflammation is the body’s response to injury, irritation, or foreign invaders. Consider what happens when you get a bee sting. The site of the sting grows red and swollen as your body races to heal. Once healed, the immune system quiets down again. That’s acute inflammation and is a healthy and welcome response.
About Chronic Inflammation
Not so welcome is chronic inflammation. That’s when the immune system is triggered and stays in a state of alert without the ebb and flow. This sort of inflammation is thought to be the common denominator in most chronic diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and dementia, as well as arthritis and depression.
But what does chronic inflammation have to do with what we eat? Probably a lot
Research shows a positive relationship between what we put into our mouths and our body’s inflammatory response. Certain types of foods can trigger inflammation, and over time have a negative impact on our health. The biggest pro-inflammatory offenders include:
- Sugar: candy, sweetened beverages, desserts/baked goods, syrups, and table sugar
- Trans fats: foods prepared with or cooked in partially hydrogenated oils, notably fried foods, processed/packaged baked goods, and stick margarine
- Refined carbohydrates: white flour, white bread, white rice, heavily processed carbohydrates
- Saturated fat: fatty beef, lamb and pork, poultry with skin, lard, butter and palm kernel oil
That doesn’t mean abolishing these foods entirely from our plates (though I see no place for trans fats), but too much, too often may put your body in a state of chronic inflammation. The typical Western diet, therefore, looks like a recipe for inflammation, which does much to explain the incidence of chronic diseases in this country.
Other dietary factors linked to inflammation include excessive alcohol and foods to which you have an allergy or food sensitivity (think wheat bread for someone who is gluten-intolerant or milk for someone with a dairy allergy).
So, What IS an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
The simple truth is something your great grandmother could have told you long before the research did: you are what you eat.
But here’s the good news: You ARE what you eat. Making adjustments to the quality of your diet can go far in quieting inflammation. And just as eating some foods in excess can cause inflammation, plenty of other foods can mediate it.
Stocking A Healthy, Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen
Foods and nutrients commonly associated with calming inflammation include fruits and vegetables, foods rich in Omega-3 fats, fiber, vitamin E, vitamin C, and beta carotene. How does that translate to your everyday diet?
- Heavy up on fruits and vegetables of every color, shape and stripe. Those rich in carotenoids (carrots, tomatoes, cantaloupe) and vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, potatoes) are of particular interest for mediating inflammation.
- Look to eat salmon, sardines, walnuts, and seeds such as flax and hemp, which are all sources of Omega-3 fats.
- Eat whole grains, beans, and legumes, which collectively are good sources of fiber
- Aim for healthy fats such as avocados, sunflower seeds, almonds, and peanuts, which are rich in vitamin E and other healthy fats.
- Use extra-virgin olive oil in place of pro-inflammatory trans and saturated fats.
- Incorporate other foods with potential anti-inflammatory benefits such as garlic, ginger, turmeric, onions, and rosemary.
- Know that when used in moderation, alcohol can have a positive benefit as well (which isn’t a prescription to start drinking, more an awareness that a glass or wine a day may have a positive upside).
The Bottom Line
Eat a varied diet made up mostly of whole, minimally processed foods with an emphasis on plant-based foods. Other key factors in keeping inflammation in check include moving your body on a consistent basis, managing stress, and maintaining a healthy weight.
For Anti-Inflammatory Recipes, Check out:
Warm Cabbage with Toasted Walnut Dressing from Brain Health Kitchen
Much gratitude to my dietetic intern Leah Walton who helped research this post.