What is an Anti-inflammatory Diet? Here, we dive deep into the meaning and causes of inflammation, plus get a list of anti-inflammatory foods and learn how to balance gentle nutrition with Intuitive Eating and trusting your body's innate wisdom.
**This post originally appeared in November 2015. It was updated in July 2017 to reflect new information, tips, a list of anti inflammatory foods and a helpful quiz. It's been updated again in August 2019 as our approach to food has evolved into more of an intuitive eating mindset.
When I was first diagnosed with PCOS and Leaky Gut, my doctor recommended I eat an anti-inflammatory diet. I honestly had no idea what that was–or what inflammation even meant, for that matter.
After a few Google searches and reading articles online, I turned to the amazing Clean Cuisine Book for help. My eyes were opened! Within a week, my digestion had improved by nearly 100 percent and I truly felt better, lighter and so much less bloated.
And the change in what I was eating wasn't even that drastic. I couldn't believe I didn't have to completely cut out entire food groups to reduce inflammation in my body.
Instead, I learned, it's about nourishing your body with health-promoting nutrients. Think about what you can ADD IN instead of what you have to CUT OUT.
NOTE: I want to take a second here to say that as my approach to food has evolved, I no longer think of food as being either good or bad, like I once did when I first wrote this post on the anti-inflammatory diet.
In fact, the crux of my evolution comes down to the fact that I believe things aren’t so black and white, and there absolutely is NO ‘one size fits all’ approach to health and wellness, not even the anti-inflammatory diet. Because guess what?
Not only do we each have our own unique bodies, health history, environment, and genes, but perhaps more important than that: Diets, no matter how unrestrictive they might seem, don't work. Let me say that again.
DIETS DO NOT WORK.
There are literally hundreds of studies that show that not only are diets not a long-term solution, but they also often result in people gaining back more weight than they lost and creating other health problems from the yo-yo dieting and stress of it all.
So, yes, the anti-inflammatory diet was an amazing tool in the beginning of my healing journey that provided me with incredible support and results. And it's not that I don't recommend it, per se. But following this way of eating (and I did it for over 3 years!) was not sustainable in the long-term, and it wound up causing me a lot of stress due to feelings of guilt, shame and fear that I developed around food. Even with the 80-20 rule–which was still a “rule”, a way of eating that followed something other than my body's own intuition.
I’ve seen firsthand the role stress plays in my own life, and the more I’m learning about it and discovering new research, along with my own empirical evidence, I’m now convinced of this:
MORE important than the actual food we eat is HOW we think and feel about food.
This includes our mindset, our stress levels, our emotions, and our energy towards how we approach food–and ultimately–how we approach life at large.
I now believe that we should first listen to what our bodies are saying, what are they asking for, what do they need, what makes us feel good, and decide what we eat based on that, rather than arbitrary rules someone else put in place.
YOU are the expert of your own body, nobody else, no matter how many degrees or certifications they might have.
Our bodies truly do have their own wisdom, and it’s our job to slow down and get into a receptive mode so we can hear what they have to say.
NOT what the latest fad diet is preaching, NOT what your friend swore made her lose 10 pounds, NOT even what some blogger (cough cough, that was me) promised reversed her PCOS or cured her digestion woes.
Now that I've had my digestion, hormones, and thyroid balanced and optimized for several years, I realize that food is just ONE piece of the puzzle. What you eat can certainly help you feel better; there's no arguing that. But so can how much movement you incorporate into your lifestyle, how you practice self-care, what kinds of medications and supplements you take, where your stress levels are, what kind of spirituality you may or may not have, what kinds of products you use on your skin, in your home, and what is happening in your environment. Not to mention genes. Hello!
OK…so now, and I know this might come as a shock, I want to talk about inflammation. But from a different perspective than I used to… from an intuitive eating perspective that applies gentle nutrition to get your feeling your best: mind, body, and soul.
If something doesn't resonate with you along the way, that's okay. TRUST YOURSELF! YOU know what makes your body feel good.
What Is the Definition of Inflammation?
You've likely heard the term inflammation thrown around before, but if (like me), you're not sure what inflammation means, this section is for you.
The best way I heard inflammation described was to think of how your body swells and becomes red and hot when you cut or burn yourself. That's inflammation. It's simply your body's immune response to protect it from harm and begin healing.
While acute inflammation (think infections, sore throats, cut, viruses, and other temporary conditions) is a GREAT thing, there is another type of inflammation. And what I had (and what millions of Americans have) is chronic inflammation.
Chronic inflammation, meaning your body is constantly inflamed, can cause a host of diseases and debilitating conditions, including rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, digestive disorders (from IBD and IBS to Ulcerative colitis and Crohn's disease), asthma, ulcers, sinusitis, atherosclerosis, periodontitis, hay fever, active hepatitis, diabetes, Alzheimer's and even cancer. (source)
How To Tell If Your Inflamed: Signs, Symptoms + A Quiz for Chronic Inflammation
Though inflammation can cause these more serious conditions, there are some early signs of inflammation you can watch for.
While acute inflammation symptoms include pain, redness, immobility, swelling and heat, chronic inflammation symptoms are a little more complicated. But fear not! I've created a handy quiz here to help you figure out whether or not your body is inflamed.
What Causes Inflammation?
While it's hard to pinpoint exactly what causes inflammation (it can be a whole host of things and/or a combination of things), we know that harmful bacteria and pathogens, injury, infections with some types of viruses, lack of quality sleep, smoking, chronic stress (my guess is this may be one of the BIGGEST factors in those struggling with chronic inflammation), persistent foreign invaders (i.e. food that doesn't make our body feel good), and overactive immune system reactions all play a role.
NOTE: Again, this is a reminder that it's not ONLY about the food. There are a lot of things that can cause inflammation, some of which are out of our control.
While I used to recommend avoiding foods like deep-fried junk, refined, white flour, excessive caffeine and alcohol, and processed food, I now believe the stress of this kind of deprivation may be even worse for our bodies than the food itself. So instead, I now recommend a more balanced and realistic approach you can sustain for the long-term.
That being said, if you have a legitimate food allergy and you continue eating that food, you are going to feel the negative repercussions of that food; so in the case of allergies, I do recommend removing the food trigger from your diet.
If you don't have a food allergy, I recommend instead focusing on adding in more nourishing foods to your diet that will reduce the inflammation in your body, and thus reduce any symptoms caused by inflammation and ultimately your risk for chronic disease. YES!
What foods reduce inflammation?
Ok before I give you a list of anti-inflammatory foods, let's quickly go over the basics of the anti-inflammatory diet.
In short, an anti-inflammatory diet is chockfull of fresh fruits and vegetables. It's also rich in good fats (like almonds and avocados), lean protein (think beans and fish) and fiber-rich carbs (like veggies and whole grains), much like the Mediterranean diet.
In fact, what I found after 3+ years of eating this way, is that reducing inflammation in your body isn't about cutting out entire foods groups and following some restrictive, depressing diet.
Instead, it's centered around this basic concept: eat more good.
A LIST OF ANTI INFLAMMATORY FOODS TO EAT MORE OF:
- Fruits and vegetables: The key component to reducing inflammation is nourishing your body with phytonutrients from a rotating, rainbow assortment of fiber- and antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. I aim to incorporate at least one serving of either fruits or vegetables into every single meal, including snacks. Easy ways to do this: drink green smoothies, eat lots of salads and grain bowls, mix in veggies to stir-fries and pastas and even hamburgers (mushrooms are such an easy way to do this!). I try to get a wide range of colors into my diet, so that I'm maximizing my nutrient intake and giving my body plenty of variety. And I do buy organic as much as possible to avoid toxic chemicals, pesticides, and herbicides that can cause inflammation.
- Whole grains: Don't be afraid of carbs! Our bodies NEED them in order to function. I like brown rice, oatmeal, barley, millet, quinoa and amaranth.
- Healthy fats. Don't fear fat, either! Omega-3s (that's the good-for-you fat), like salmon, avocados, olive oil and nuts and seeds, like walnuts, almonds, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Nuts make a great snack, while flax and chia are perfect for smoothies and salads.
- Fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics. Apple cider vinegar, yogurt, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and miso are some of my favorites, and they're incredibly nourishing for your gut, too!
- Bone broth. Bone broth is a nutritional powerhouse that is incredibly rich in minerals (notably calcium and magnesium) and amino acids (protein). Thanks to the gelatin (collagen) and cartilage from the animal bones being simmered over a long period of time, anti-aging bone broth reduces inflammation, heals the gut and boosts immunity. Here's a recipe to make your own, or pickup my fav brand Kettle & Fire that's made from 100% organic, free range chicken bones or grass-fed beef, vegetables and seasonings – that's it! No fillers, additives, etc. Use the code RRHQ15 to get 15% off your order from Kettle & Fire!
- Beans and legumes. Full of protein and fiber, beans and legumes are a great way to reduce inflammation. I look for BPA-free cans and containers.
- Spices and herbs. The most flavorful dishes are usually full of fresh herbs and spices. Some of the most anti-inflammatory options include ginger, garlic, turmeric, cinnamon, chiles, and aromatic herbs like basil, mint, parsley, thyme and cilantro.
What foods cause inflammation?
I used to include a section here about foods that cause inflammation, but I've decided to remove it because short of a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy to a specific food, I truly believe there is room for ALL foods in a balanced diet.
Of course, I don't recommend subsisting solely on fast food, refined sugar, soybean oil, caffeine and alcohol. There's nothing balanced about that!
But life requires we make space for pizza on Friday night family game night, or some margaritas and tacos when you’re out with your friends, or convenient fast food during a road trip if you’re craving some Chick-Fil-A.
This is life and we need to ENJOY it, not stress about it. How liberating is that?!
No matter what you eat, be sure to wash it all down with plenty of good old fashioned water–staying hydrated is another key component to reducing inflammation.
It's important to note that we all have bodies that are unique with personalized microbiomes, food sensitivities, medical history, unique genes, etc. While the list above is a great guideline, the best way to really get to know what foods are best for you is to do some testing to get to the bottom of any physical issues you may be experiencing in your body.
A couple of my favorite companies that provide you with affordable tests you can take at home are Viome for gut tests and EverlyWell for food sensitivities test (EverlyWell also has awesome hormonal tests, vitamin + mineral deficiency tests and more). For more details, read about my first hand experiences with Viome in Metabolism + Microbiome Testing From Your Couch, and with EverlyWell in the posts The Best At Home Health Tests and Women's Health Tracking Tools to Track Periods, Increase Fertility + Balance Hormones.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet + Intuitive Eating
Technically, those two phrases don't belong together. Intuitive Eating is the opposite of a diet. And while I am a proponent of gently nourishing your body with “healthy” foods, I also am a firm believer that it's healthy to let loose and not constantly worry about every bite you put into your mouth.
Everything in moderation, including moderation.
It's one of my all-time favorite quotes, and I truly believe balance is the secret to living a long, healthy and happy life. So while I do try to incorporate anti-inflammatory foods onto my plate, I've also learned to let go and celebrate life, too.
Life isn't worth living without the pleasure food provides, but it's no fun living with chronic disease, either. Find the balance that works best for YOU. Cheers!
If you want to learn more about intuitive eating and the anti-inflammatory diet, I highly recommend the following books:
Likewise, food isn't the only way to reduce inflammation. There are also natural supplements and herbs you can take, stress-reducing lifestyle changes you could employ, and the detoxing of your products and environment that can help you reduce inflammation in your body and put yourself on the fast track to your best.