Inflammation helps the body fight illness and can protect it from harm. In most cases, it is a necessary part of the healing process.
However, some people have a medical condition in which the immune system does not work as it should. This malfunction can lead to persistent or recurrent low level inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet favors fruits and vegetables, foods containing omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, lean protein, healthful fats, and spices. It discourages or limits the consumption of processed foods, red meats, and alcohol.
Some foods contain ingredients that can trigger or worsen inflammation. Sugary or processed foods may do this, while fresh, whole foods are less likely to have this effect.
An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on fresh fruits and vegetables. Many plant-based foods are good sources of antioxidants. Some foods, however, can trigger the formation of free radicals. Examples include foods that people fry in repeatedly heated cooking oil.
Dietary antioxidants are molecules in food that help remove free radicals from the body. Free radicals are the natural byproducts of some bodily processes, including metabolism. However, external factors, such as stress and smoking, can increase the number of free radicals in the body.
Free radicals can lead to cell damage. This damage increases the risk of inflammation and can contribute to a range of diseases.
The body creates some antioxidants that help it remove these toxic substances, but dietary antioxidants also help.
To learn more about antioxidants, click here.
An anti-inflammatory diet favors foods that are rich in antioxidants over those that increase the production of free radicals.
Which foods are good sources of antioxidants? Find out here.
Types of anti-inflammatory diet
Many popular diets already adhere to anti-inflammatory principles.
For example, both the Mediterranean diet and the DASH diet include fresh fruits and vegetables, fish, whole grains, and fats that are good for the heart.
Inflammation appears to play a role in cardiovascular disease, but research suggests that the Mediterranean diet, with its focus on plant-based foods and healthful oils, can reduce the effects of inflammation on the cardiovascular system.
An anti-inflammatory diet may serve as a complementary therapy for many conditions that become worse with chronic inflammation.
The following conditions involve inflammation:
- rheumatoid arthritis
- eosinophilic esophagitis
- Crohn’s disease
- inflammatory bowel disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- metabolic syndrome
Scientists believe that inflammation plays a role in all of these. An anti-inflammatory diet may, therefore, help improve the health of a person with metabolic syndrome.
Eating a diet that is rich in antioxidants may also help reduce the risk of certain cancers.
Antioxidants help remove free radicals, but what are free radicals? Find out here.
An anti-inflammatory diet should combine a variety of foods that:
- are rich in nutrients
- provide a range of antioxidants
- contain healthful fats
Foods that may help manage inflammation include:
- oily fish, such as tuna and salmon
- fruits, such as blueberries, blackberries, strawberries, and cherries
- vegetables, including kale, spinach, and broccoli
- nuts and seeds
- olives and olive oil
The authors of a 2017 article also recommended the following:
- raw or moderately cooked vegetables
- legumes, such as lentils
- spices, such as ginger and turmeric
- probiotics and prebiotics
- some herbs
It is worth remembering that:
No single food will boost a person’s health. It is important to include a variety of healthful ingredients in the diet.
Fresh, simple ingredients are best. Processing can change the nutritional content of foods.
People should check the labels of premade foods. While cocoa can be a good choice, for example, the products that contain cocoa often also contain sugar and fat.
A colorful plate will provide a range of antioxidants and other nutrients. Be sure to vary the colors of fruits and vegetables.
People who are following an anti-inflammatory diet should avoid or limit their intake of:
- processed foods
- foods with added sugar or salt
- unhealthful oils
- processed carbs, which are present in white bread, white pasta, and many baked goods
- processed snack foods, such as chips and crackers
- premade desserts, such as cookies, candy, and ice cream
- excess alcohol
- In addition, people may find it beneficial to limit their intake of the following:
Gluten: Some people experience an inflammatory reaction when they consume gluten. A gluten-free diet can be restrictive, and it is not suitable for everyone. However, if a person suspects that gluten is triggering symptoms, they may wish to consider eliminating it for a while to see if their symptoms improve.
Nightshades: Plants belonging to the nightshade family, such as tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, and potatoes, seem to trigger flares in some people with inflammatory diseases. There is limited evidence to confirm this effect, but a person can try cutting nightshades from the diet for 2–3 weeks to see if their symptoms improve.
Carbohydrates: There is some evidence that a high carb diet, even when the carbs are healthful, may promote inflammation in some people. However, some carb-rich foods, such as sweet potatoes and whole grains, are excellent sources of antioxidants and other nutrients.
Is there a link between sugar and inflammation? Find out here.
Can a vegetarian diet reduce inflammation?
A vegetarian diet may be one option for people looking to reduce inflammation. The authors of a 2019 review analyzed data from 40 studies. They concluded that people who follow a vegetarian-based diet are likely to have lower levels of various inflammatory markers.
A 2017 study looked at the data of 268 people who followed either a strict vegetarian diet, a lacto-ovo-vegetarian diet, or a nonvegetarian diet. The findings suggested that eating animal products could increase the risk of systemic inflammation and insulin resistance.
Earlier research from 2014 suggested that lower inflammation levels could be a key benefit of a vegan diet.
It can be challenging to transition to a new way of eating, but the following tips may help:
- Pick up a variety of fruits, vegetables, and healthful snacks during the weekly shop.
- Gradually replace fast food meals with healthful, homemade lunches.
- Replace soda and other sugary beverages with still or sparkling mineral water.
Other tips include:
- Talking to a healthcare professional about supplements, such as cod liver oil or a multivitamin.
- Incorporating 30 minutes of moderate exercise into the daily routine.
- Practicing good sleep hygiene, as poor sleep can worsen inflammation.
Can supplements help reduce inflammation? Find out here.
An anti-inflammatory diet may help reduce inflammation and improve symptoms of some common health conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis.
There is no single anti-inflammatory diet, but a diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthful fats may help manage inflammation.
Anyone who has a chronic health condition that involves inflammation should ask a healthcare professional about the best dietary options for them.
Is coffee acceptable on an anti-inflammatory diet?
Coffee contains antioxidants, such as polyphenols, which help fight free radicals in the body and are safe to include in an anti-inflammatory diet.
Drink coffee in moderation, however, as too much of anything can have harmful effects.
Also, be wary of what you add to your coffee. Skip the pro-inflammatory additives, such as sugary creamers, syrups, and whipped cream.
Instead, add coconut milk, cinnamon, unsweetened cocoa powder, vanilla extract, or a little raw honey. You could even combine a few of these ingredients to make your own “fancy” yet healthful cup of joe.
Katherine Marengo LDN, R.D. Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.