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 what foods to avoid.
**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.
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 my diet wasn’t even that drastic. I couldn’t believe how simple and powerful the anti-inflammatory diet was.
My friends and family are always asking me “can you eat this?” and the truth is, an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t totally restrictive.
You don’t have to completely cut out entire food groups to reduce inflammation in your body. Instead, it’s about eating more of the good (real, whole food) and simply less of the bad (processed, refined junk). The 80-20 rule at its best.
And now, nearly three years later, I can proudly say that following the anti-inflammatory diet is the number one thing I did to reverse chronic diseases like IBS, hormonal imbalances, and hypothyroidism.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning:
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.
This is bad. Really bad. Chronic inflammation, meaning your body is constantly inflamed, can cause a host 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.
Inflammation is truly one of America’s most deadly diseases. That’s why inflammation is SO scary!
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, persistent foreign invaders, and overactive immune system reactions all play a role.
While some of these things might be out of our control, there’s a big one that is not: persistent foreign bodies, aka FOOD! Or more specifically, harmful food.
Of course, it always comes back to food. Or rather, health starts with food.
Yes, finally the good news! There is a treatment for inflammation and it’s as simple as changing the way we eat.
Think of it like this: the food we eat can either be nourishing or harmful. So when we eat inflammatory foods (deep-fried junk, refined, white flour, excessive caffeine and alcohol, processed food), our body’s immune response flares up = acute inflammation.
And when we keep eating that way, it never gets “turned off”. As a result, our cells start attacking our body and causing those chronic diseases we talked about above.
But when we eat anti-inflammatory foods, we reduce the inflammation in our body, and thus reduce any symptoms caused by inflammation and ultimately our risk for chronic disease. YES!
So what foods are inflammatory?
The anti-inflammatory diet: 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 (that’s veggies and whole grains, not refined flours and sugars).
It’s very similar to the Mediterranean diet and more about balance than you might expect.
In fact, what I’ve found after nearly 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 and less bad.
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. My goal is to eat fruit with breakfast, drink one green smoothie every day (each smoothie typically has 2-4 servings of fruit/veggies in it), a salad for lunch and two vegetables with dinner. It’s important to get a wide range of colors into your diet, so that you’re maximizing your nutrient intake. And buy organic as much as possible to avoid toxic chemicals, pesticides and herbicides that can cause inflammation.
- Whole grains, especially non-flour and sprouted options. Though 100 percent whole wheat products are a better choice than refined white flour foods, it’s even better to opt for wheat-free whole grains like brown rice, oatmeal, barley, millet, quinoa and amaranth. As much as the food writer in me rolls my eyes when people fake Celiac disease because they think cutting carbs will make them skinny, the truth is gluten does cause an inflammatory response in most people and it’s often best to reduce your intake, regardless of whether or not you have a real allergy.
- Fermented foods, which are rich in probiotics. Apple cider vinegar, kombucha, kimchi, sauerkraut and miso are some of my favorites. Some yogurt is okay, but see the note below on reducing dairy intake.
- Beans and legumes. Full of protein and fiber, beans and legumes are a great way to reduce inflammation. I try to eat 1 serving every day–once you start, you realize how easy it is to add beans to almost every dish. Always look for BPA-free cans and containers.
- Good fats. It’s so important to eat a diet rich in 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.
- Spices and herbs. Though many restaurants would like us to believe that butter and heavy cream are the only way to add flavor to a dish, countries around the world have proven the most flavorful dishes require almost no fat at all. Rather, they’re 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.
The anti-inflammatory diet: What foods cause inflammation?
Just as some foods reduce inflammation, there are others (those persistent foreign invaders) that cause inflammation. This could be because you have a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy to that food, or simply because the food is unhealthy, full of toxic chemicals, or not easy to digest.
The food you eat also determines the types of microbes that live in your gut, so it’s so important to feed all the right bugs. To wit:
a list of inflammatory foods to avoid to reduce inflammation:
- Animal products. While an anti-inflammatory diet is far from a vegan diet, there’s no getting around the fact that meat, particularly red meat, causes inflammation. I try to eat vegetarian until dinner time and have seafood for dinner three times a week. At least once a week, I go meatless the entire day. When I do eat meat, I go for pasture-raised/grass-fed, organic options from local farms that never use antibiotics and hormones. Just say no to factory-farmed meat.
- Dairy. Other than a splash of cream in my coffee, I’ve tried to replace all cow’s milk dairy in my diet with nut milks (almond milk or coconut milk are great substitutes). Cheese is incredibly difficult to substitute, as is yogurt, so I just eat those in moderation because…life, ya know?
- Refined, processed and “fast” foods. We already mentioned whole grains in favor of refined flours above, and the same goes for refined sugars (corn syrup, cane juice, white sugar). Replace with dates, coconut palm sugar, unpasteurized raw honey or agave nectar and keep to a minimum. Flavorings like citrus zest and vanilla extract can add sweetness without any added sugar. Splenda and other “fake” sugars and artificial sweeteners are even worse, so just avoid those at all costs, along with pre-packaged convenience foods (we’re looking at you Lean Cuisine), most bottled fruit juices and sodas and, of course, fast food. Just eat real food.
- Vegetable + Canola Oil. Whenever possible, opt for extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil and coconut oil–most other oils are hydrogenated and cause inflammation. This makes fried foods and many Asian dishes particularly difficult to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet plan, as most are cooked in a neutral flavored oil, like canola, soybean or vegetable oils, which are high in omega-6s (the bad-for-you fats). Never ever eat margarine or “fake” butters.
- Alcohol. This one is tough, but if you can, try to limit alcohol consumption to less than 2 drinks per night. If I know I have a big party or social gathering coming up, I’ll try to go booze-free for a few days leading up to it and afterward, so the damage won’t be as difficult to bounce back from.
- Caffeine. Another difficult one to minimize, but if you can, try to limit coffee to 1-2 cups per day (never on an empty stomach) or opt for decaf coffee or caffeine-free herbal tea instead. And, of course, no soda.
Be sure to wash it all down with plenty of good old fashioned water–staying hydrated is another key component to reducing inflammation.
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet + 80-20 Rule
I truly believe balance is the secret to living a long, healthy and happy life. So while I do eat an anti-inflammatory diet, I also allow myself indulgences in moderation and swear by the 80-20 rule: be as healthy as you can 80 percent of the time, and learn to let go and celebrate life the other 20 percent.
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 the anti-inflammatory diet, I highly recommend the following books:
Likewise, food isn’t the only way to reduce inflammation. There are also anti-inflammatory supplements and herbs and lifestyle changes (including tossing toxic products) you can make to reduce inflammation in your body and put yourself on the fast track to your best.