The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Is It Right for You?

By: Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD

An anti-inflammatory diet focuses on eating foods that help fight inflammation, and avoiding foods that can cause it. But can it really help?

The anti-inflammatory diet is based on the assumption that certain foods either cause or can help combat chronic inflammation. Inflammation in the body is our natural reaction to stress or damage.

Lemon-Herb Salmon with Caponata & Farro

Pictured Recipe: Lemon-Herb Salmon with Caponata & Farro

Short-term inflammation is often necessary to help our bodies heal from injuries or illness. Long-term or chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can be a hazard to your health. Over time, chronic inflammation can lead to serious diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and cancer.

By eating anti-inflammatory foods, or foods that fight inflammation, you can reduce inflammation in the body, prevent the development of chronic diseases and promote overall health and wellness. Here's what to eat more of and less of to help fend off inflammation.

What Can I Eat on the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet is very similar to the Mediterranean Diet—both diets have a strong emphasis on eating fresh foods and healthy fats. It includes foods that are high in antioxidants, like fresh fruits and vegetables, and avoids foods that are known to cause inflammation, such as highly processed or deep-fried foods and convenience or fast foods.

You don't need to count calories on an anti-inflammatory diet. The focus of the anti-inflammatory diet is to balance your macronutrients from carbs, protein and fats. An anti-inflammatory diet should include 40 to 50 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent of calories from fat, and 20 to 30 percent of calories from protein. You can estimate your macronutrient intake in trackers like MyFitnessPal and Lose It!

Follow these guidelines to find foods that fit an anti-inflammatory diet.

Healthy Carbohydrates

Black Bean Chili

Pictured recipe: Sweet Potato Black Bean Chili

• Opt for whole grains and brown rice, rather than white starches and refined grains.
• Eat plenty of beans, winter squash, sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables.
• Get at least 40 grams of fiber each day. The easiest way to do this is by increasing your intake of beans, whole grains and fruit and vegetables. Berries, tomatoes, orange and yellow fruits, dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables are all good sources of fiber.

Healthy Fats

West Coast Avocado Toast

Pictured Recipe: West Coast Avocado Toast

• Eat more healthy unsaturated fats and fewer saturated fats. Choose olive oil, grapeseed oil, corn oil, canola oil, avocado oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and other healthy plant-based fats more than fats like butter and coconut oil. Avoid trans fats, found in processed foods made with partially hydrogenated oils, completely.
• Use extra-virgin olive oil or canola oil for cooking. Choose organic canola oil if you are concerned about GMOs.
• Incorporate foods like avocados, walnuts, cashews and almonds for a good dose of your daily healthy fats.
• Eat foods that are high in omega-3 fatty acids, like salmon, sardines, herring, black cod, hemp seeds and flaxseeds. Aim to eat fish twice a week.

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Healthy Proteins

Om Buddha Bowl

Pictured Recipe: Om Buddha Bowl

• Choose plant-based proteins, like beans, lentils and soy, more often than animal proteins.

Additional Anti-Inflammatory Diet Guidelines

• Drink water and unsweetened coffee and tea. Avoid sodas and other beverages that contain added sugar.
• If you drink alcohol, choose red wine and drink in moderation. A compound present in red wine, resveratrol, has anti-inflammatory properties.
• Satisfy your sweet tooth by choosing dark chocolate in moderation.

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What Foods Should I Avoid on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Just as important as eating more foods that fight inflammation is eating fewer foods that might cause inflammation. Follow these guidelines to rid your diet of foods that may increase inflammation in your body.

• Avoid highly processed foods made with white flour and sugar, like white bread and packaged snacks and baked goods.
• Reduce your intake of saturated fat by eating less full-fat dairy, including butter, cream and high-fat cheese. Fatty meats contain high amounts of saturated fat, as do products made with palm oil and coconut oil.
• Cut back on animal proteins, including red meat, cheese and yogurt. Focus your protein intake on omega-3-rich fish and plant sources.

Does It Work?

A wealth of research shows that a diet high in unhealthy foods, like saturated and trans fats, fried foods and refined carbohydrates, can cause inflammation that could lead to serious diseases. Plenty of research also points to the beneficial effects of anti-inflammatory foods, like fruits, vegetables, whole grains and foods that are high in omega-3 fats. However, there are no studies that observe the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet as it is laid out in the guidelines above. Therefore, it's not possible to say whether this diet will definitively prevent diseases that are caused by inflammation.

Also, an anti-inflammatory diet was not developed with weight loss in mind, but it is likely that eating a diet high in many low-calorie, nutrient-dense foods, like fruits, vegetables and beans, and low in processed foods and added sugars, will lead to weight loss. One thing to note is that although high-fat foods like avocados and nuts are beneficial, they are also very high in calories. Be mindful of your portions when choosing these foods.

With these facts in mind, it's important to know that an anti-inflammatory diet has not been proven to fight inflammation-related diseases, but the foods and eating habits the diet promotes have been shown to have myriad health benefits.

Should You Try It?

Overall, an anti-inflammatory diet is a healthy way of eating that is in line with EatingWell's nutrition standards. This diet promotes what we've known all along: a healthy diet includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats. Limiting processed, fried, refined, sugary foods is a good idea for a healthier diet, as too much of those types of foods may lead to the development of chronic diseases. Following this diet should increase your vitamin, mineral and fiber intake and will likely make you feel healthier and possibly help you lose weight.

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Related:

10 Ways to Reduce Inflammation
7-Day Mediterranean Diet Meal Plan
High-Protein Plant-Based Recipes