Before you start the anti-inflammatory diet, you should understand exactly what it is. Inflammation is a necessary mechanism of our immune systems, which evolved at a time when it would need to respond to acute insults such as infections. “But today, our immune systems are responding to our diets and lifestyles, and this has unintended consequences, including tissue damage,” says Max Lugavere, New York Times best-selling author of Genius Foods. An anti-inflammatory diet attempts to steer the body from a chronically inflamed state to one with healthy levels of inflammation. While things like regular exercise, proper sleep, and stress management can also play a role, experts say diet can be a crucial aspect in keeping our bodies free of dangerous levels of chronic inflammation. Here are 26 things to know about the anti-inflammatory diet and some tips on how you can incorporate elements of it into your lifestyle:
26 Facts About the Anti-Inflammatory Diet
1. Inflammation as a bodily function is not necessarily a bad thing.
“When the body is injured or ill, the lymphatic (immune) system springs into action, bringing the immune system’s army of white blood cells to the area of concern via increased blood flow,” explains Dr. Josh Axe, founder of Ancient Nutrition. He notes that “inflammation in a healthy body is the normal and effective response that facilitates healing,” like when a cut becomes red, painful or swollen.
2. But too much inflammation is no Bueno.
According to Dr. Axe, when the immune system overreaches and begins attacking healthy body tissues, we’re met with an autoimmune disorder and inflammation in otherwise healthy areas of the body. “Inflammatory effects also are linked to arthritis and fibromyalgia symptoms, as well as celiac and irritable bowel disease (IBD),” he explains, adding that, “asthma creates inflamed airways; inflammation related to diabetes affects insulin resistance; and so on.”
3. “An anti-inflammatory diet is one that not only reduces inflammation but also increases its resolution (i.e., turning it off) and generates the repair of the tissue damage caused by the inflammation,” says Dr. Barry Sears.
Dr. Sears is president of the non-profit Inflammation Research Foundation, and author of the Zone Diet book series (which now includes his newest release, The Resolution Zone).
4. The standard American diet isn’t doing us any favors in this department.
As a report from the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases stated: “While today’s modern diet may provide beneficial protection from micro- and macronutrient deficiencies, our overabundance of calories and the macronutrients that compose our diet may all lead to increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for allergic and auto-inflammatory disease.”
Drying your hands is as important as washing them. Wet hands transmit bacteria more easily, so especially during cold and flu season, take the time to dry them thoroughly.
Dr. Andrew Weil, co-founder of True Food Kitchen, author of 8 Weeks to Optimum Health and the creator of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, tellsthat he based his program on the Mediterranean diet, due to the evidence-backed general health benefits on it. “I tweaked that by adding Asian influences to it because I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia and I’ve drawn on Asian cuisine. So adding such things as ginger and turmeric and green tea and Asian mushrooms, for example,” he explains.
6. The diet prioritizes vegetables, fruits, whole and cracked grains, pasta, beans and legumes, healthy fats, fish and shellfish, whole-soy foods, cooked Asian mushrooms, and tea.
You can have occasional servings of lean meat, eggs, and small dairy—as well as small amounts of chocolate and wine! Check out Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid for the recommended servings of each.
7. Say no to processed foods.
“The most important tip is to avoid refined, processed, and manufactured foods,” explains Dr. Weil. “That’s what’s doing us in. That’s what’s causing most problems, so the more you can eliminate that from your diet, the better.”
8. Prioritize whole foods.
Weil adds that you will be doing your body a massive favor if you “eat foods that are as close to the way nature produces them as possible.”
9. If you have certain medical conditions, you may want to give it a whirl.
Weil would recommend that everyone prioritizes eating in a low inflammatory manner—“I think it gives you your best shot at overall health and longevity, since the most serious diseases that do people in as they get older are rooted in chronic inappropriate inflammation. So I think by following that, that’s really your best overall health strategy,” he explains. But per the expert, people with inflammatory disorders like arthritis, autoimmune diseases, etc. may especially benefit from it.
10. Think twice before loading up your morning beverages with artificial additives.
“Coffee and tea are generally considered anti-inflammatory—it’s with what we adulterate these beverages that can swing these beverages into inflammatory territory,” says Monica Auslander Moreno, MS, RD, LD/N, nutrition consultant for RSP Nutrition.
11. Spices like turmeric and ginger can go a long way in helping to curb inflammation.
“The journal Oncogene published the results of a study that evaluated several anti-inflammatory compounds. It found that aspirin (Bayer, etc.) and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.) are least potent, while curcumin is among the most potent anti-inflammatory and anti-proliferative agents in the world,” says Dr. Axe.
12. “Turmeric comes in a supplement form but also add the spice to foods like salad, soup, or scrambled eggs,” says Len Saunders, author of Generation Exercise, and a spokesperson for the American Heart Association.
13. “You can use ginger in fresh, dried, or in supplement form, as well as extracts,” says Axe.
14. Choose at least 5 servings of fruits and vegetables daily, says Hailey Crean, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Hailey Crean Nutrition, LLC.
She says that “fruits and vegetables contain beneficial polyphenols such as anthocyanin, which have powerful antioxidant effects” and that “diets high in fruits and vegetables provide vitamins C and E, which may provide protective antioxidant effects.”
15. Be mindful of fat choices.
“Studies show that diets with better ratios of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids may provide protective cardiovascular benefits,” says Crean. She cites that good sources of dietary omega-3 fatty acids include: fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel and herring—“aim for 2 servings a week”—and advocates for limiting dietary sources of omega-6 fatty acids like soybean oil, sunflower oil and corn oil.
16. Stop before you pick up that brownie.
A crucial component of warding off inflammation, per Dr. Weil, is to keep your sugar intake low. “Also pay attention to the fructose content of various sweeteners because the body can’t handle fructose well and it disrupts metabolism,” he says.
17. “Of the common sweeteners, maple syrup has the lowest fructose content. Honey and agave are quite high fructose content and I think generally too much sugar,” says Dr. Weil.
18. You don’t have to become a vegetarian but Dr. Weil wants you to reduce your animal protein.
“It would be good for people to reduce the percentage of animal foods in the diet. I think that North Americans eat much too much meat, beef especially, and too many animal foods. So replacing some of that with plant proteins is a good strategy,” he explains.
19. Eat the rainbow.
Aim for a wide variety of vegetables, incorporate them into as many meals as possible, and include as many different colors as you can get, says Dr. Weil.
20. Be choosey with your grains.
Weil says grains are absolutely OK, as long as you are eating the right kinds. “I think grains are good food if they’re not processed, but there’s a big difference between whole grains or cracked grains and polarized grains/flour,” he says. “If I ask most people to name a whole grain food, they’ll say whole wheat bread. And that’s not a whole grain foods. It’s made from flour.” So limit the processed ones and opt for rice, wild rice, quinoa, barley, millet and buckwheat instead.
Related: 12 Nutritious Quinoa Salads for Simple Meals
21. Recipe options are limitless.
There are many foods that are allowed on the diet plan and Dr. Weil encourages you to get creative. For instance, he often eats smoked fish and whole grain toast, or even a salad for breakfast. “You can have fish frequently, especially salmon and black cod and other fish that are high in omega-3 fatty acids. I like good soy foods—tempeh, tofu, edamame. And those are examples of good quality vegetable protein foods. There are many vegetable preparations. Pasta is fine as long as it’s cooked al dente and not in huge quantities with not creamy, buttery sauces. And a lot of the ethnic foods like Asian, Middle Eastern, and Japanese are filled with healthy spices and great ingredients,” he says.
22. Read labels.
Weil says as a rule of thumb, it’s a good idea to avoid “foods prepared by other people, fast food, and stuff from the middle of the supermarket—the highly-processed stuff.” He adds that if ingredients can barely fit on the label, you don’t want to eat it; if they are too many things there, you don’t know what they are, it’s a pass. “Think about if you’re going to make this at home, what ingredients you would use? And if there are too many other things beyond that,” don’t use them.
23. A few processed foods do get Dr. Weil’s stamp of approval, just make sure they are clean and with limited, whole foods-based ingredients.
“There are some good prepared foods out there,” he explains, noting that he buys Gyoza potstickers from Trader Joe’s—“I often cook them with broccoli and that’s a quick, easy meal”—as well as American Flatbread pizzas from Whole Foods.
24. Some additional foods to think about incorporating:
per Jim Frith, author of End the Yo-Yo; the EAMAYW® System and advanced sports nutrition specialist, are: darkly pigmented berries, stone fruits, cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, beets, green tea, probiotics, kelp, avocado, nuts, free-range eggs and olive oil.
25. Foods to avoid:
per Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos, senior culinary advisor at Healthy Meals Supreme, include: refined carbohydrates, processed meats, sugary drinks, refined added sugars, excessive alcohol consumption and processed conventional snack items.
26. The anti-inflammatory diet shouldn’t be thought of as a diet so don’t get too crazy restrictive.
“It’s really an eating plan for life and it’s not in any way meant to reduce the pleasure of eating,” says Weil. “I think above all, eating should be pleasurable and it is possible to have good food that meets the requirements of the anti-inflammatory diet,” he adds.
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