It’s well established that low-grade inflammation is a contributor to a host of chronic illnesses including heart disease, Type-2 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis.
It’s also known that the foods you eat have the potential to either accelerate or diminish inflammation in the body.
Studies have found adhering to a healthy eating pattern, plentiful in anti-inflammatory foods, helps guard against cardiovascular disease, certain cancers and Alzheimer’s disease, for example.
Here’s what to know about an anti-inflammatory diet.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
The DASH diet is also anti-inflammatory, as are flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan diets based on whole foods.
An anti-inflammatory diet combines a variety of whole, largely plant-based foods which provide vitamins, minerals, gut-friendly fibre, healthy fats, antioxidants and phytochemicals, all of which work together to prevent or lessen inflammation.
Best foods to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet
An anti-inflammatory diet includes plenty of colourful fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Excellent anti-inflammatory foods include:
- Dark green leafy greens (e.g., spinach, kale, Swiss chard, collard greens, rapini, arugula, Romaine lettuce);
- Bright orange produce (e.g., sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, mango and apricots);
- Tomatoes, berries, red grapes, pomegranate seeds, plums, prunes, and citrus fruit;
- Other vegetables including eggplant;
- Whole grains (e.g., oats, brown rice, quinoa, farro, bulgur, freekeh, whole wheat pasta);
- Nuts including walnuts or almonds;
- Fatty fish (e.g., Salmon, trout, Arctic char, sardines, herring and mackerel are good choices) contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats and should be eaten twice a week;
- Plant proteins (e.g., kidney beans, black beans, chickpeas, lentils, tofu, tempeh and edamame).
Cook mainly with oils rich in monounsaturated fat such as olive oil and avocado oil. Flavour your meals with herbs and spices which provide anti-inflammatory polyphenols.
Green, white and black tea, as well as coffee, are anti-inflammatory beverages. So is red wine if consumed in moderation (five ounces per day).
Foods to limit on an anti-inflammatory diet
Pro-inflammatory foods should be limited or avoided. These include:
- Butter and margarine;
- Fast foods and fried foods;
- Red and processed meats (e.g., bacon, sausage, hot dogs, deli meat).
Other foods to limit include those made entirely from refined grains such:
- Refined breakfast cereals;
- White bread and crackers;
- Pastries and sweets.
Limit your use of added sugars and, as much as possible, avoid sugar-sweetened drinks (e.g., pop, iced tea, energy drinks, sweet coffee drinks).
A diet high in calories, refined starchy foods, added sugars and unhealthy fats may cause or worsen inflammation by increasing the production of free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that damage cells. A low-fibre diet may also contribute to inflammation by decreasing the diversity of beneficial microbes that reside in our gut.
What to expect on an anti-inflammatory diet
Moving from a typical North American diet, one that’s heavy in red meat, refined carbohydrates, added sugars and unhealthy fats, to an anti-inflammatory eating pattern can help you feel better in a number of ways.
You may notice that you have more energy, you sleep better, your concentration has improved or that your skin is clearer. An anti-inflammatory diet may also help reduce joint and muscle pain.
Your mood may improve, too. To date, three randomized trials have shown that following an anti-inflammatory diet (a Mediterranean diet) for three months significantly reduced depressive symptoms in adults diagnosed with depression.
Anti-inflammatory diet and brain health
Cognitive decline and dementia are also tied to chronic inflammation, so it makes sense that an anti-inflammatory diet protects brain health. Findings from observational studies suggest that this is indeed the case.
A 2021 study published in the journal Neurology found that people who consumed an anti-inflammatory diet with more fruits, vegetables, beans and tea or coffee, had a lower risk of developing dementia later in life. Participants who ate a highly inflammatory diet, however, were three times more likely to develop dementia during the three-year study.
The MIND diet, a hybrid of the Mediterranean and DASH diets that also includes specific brain-friendly foods, has also been associated with better cognitive health in older adults. (MIND stands for Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay.)
In 2015, researchers from Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that people whose diets closely matched the MIND diet had a slower rate of cognitive decline and lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease during the study period. Even following the MIND diet modestly was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
The MIND diet is currently being tested in a three-year randomized controlled trial for its effects on cognitive function in adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease.
Anti-inflammatory diet and cancer prevention
A number of studies have tied a pro-inflammatory diet to a greater risk of certain cancers and anti-inflammatory diet to a lower risk.
In 2018, researchers from the University of South Carolina pooled 44 previously published studies that investigated the relationship between the dietary inflammatory index (DII) score of participant’s diets and cancer risk. A higher DII score indicates a more inflammatory diet while a lower score denotes a more anti-inflammatory diet.
Participants whose diets had the highest DII scores were 58 per cent more likely to develop cancer than individuals whose diets were the least inflammatory. Compared to anti-inflammatory diets, highly inflammatory diets were tied to a greater risk of colorectal, breast, esophageal, prostate, ovarian and kidney cancers.
A 14-year study conducted among 1,064 breast cancer survivors, published in 2020, found that a more anti-inflammatory diet after breast cancer diagnosis was associated with improved survival.
Anti-inflammatory diet and heart health
According to a study from Harvard University conducted among 201,145 U.S. men and women, eating a diet high in inflammation-promoting foods significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. And the higher a diet’s DII score, the greater the risk.
The results, published in 2020 in the American College of Cardiology, revealed that people who ate a pro-inflammatory diet had a 46 per cent higher risk of coronary heart disease and a 28 per cent greater risk of stroke compared to those who consumed an anti-inflammatory diet.
Not surprisingly, major contributors to higher DII scores were added sugars, refined grains, sugary drinks, fried foods, processed meats, red meat and organ meats.
Participants whose diets had lower DII scores ate foods high in fibre and antioxidants. Green leafy vegetables, yellow/orange vegetables (e.g., yellow peppers, yellow beans, carrots, butternut squash, pumpkin), whole grains, coffee and tea were regularly consumed foods.
How to get started on an anti-inflammatory diet
Ease into an anti-inflammatory eating pattern by gradually modifying your meals and snacks. That way, these changes can become a lifestyle change.
Make vegetables the focus of your meals; fill half your plate with cooked and/or raw vegetables.
Consider how often you eat red meat; aim for no more than twice a week.
Swap whole grains for refined grains. Instead of the usual white rice, try farro, bulgur or red rice. Replace white bread and crackers with products made with 100-per-cent whole grains.
Snack on nuts. Instead of crackers and cheese or granola bars, snack on a small handful or mixed nuts, a pear with walnuts or a sliced apple with almond butter.
Cook with olive oil instead of butter. Olive oil (extra virgin and regular) has a relatively high smoke point, the temperature it starts to burn and smoke, making it suitable for stovetop cooking and oven roasting (up to 400 F).
Save sugary desserts for special occasions. Satisfy sweet cravings with fresh fruit, dates or figs.
If you’re looking for an anti-inflammatory diet plan to follow, you’ll find plenty guidance online for the Mediterranean, DASH and MIND diets.
Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based private practice dietitian, is director of food and nutrition at Medcan. Follow her on Twitter @LeslieBeckRD