The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: What It Can Do and How to Make It Work for You

It’s no secret that a healthy diet is essential for living a long, disease-free life. The healthier you eat, the less likely you are to get sick. The more junk you put into your body, the sicker you will be. This is where diets like the anti-inflammatory diet come from — the idea that healthy eating is a helpful defense against some of the world’s deadliest chronic diseases. It’s not a wrong assumption, as long as you don’t take science to the extreme.

Some people jump to the conclusion that chronic inflammation directly causes disease. This isn’t entirely accurate. Inflammation is more often a symptom of many chronic conditions, like arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome, and even makes them worse. It’s a bit of a stretch to say inflammation is entirely to blame for contracting a disease. There are many factors that increase your disease risk, not just your body’s immune response going into overdrive.

However, what you eat can influence whether or not you develop a condition like heart disease. Following an anti-inflammatory diet, therefore, can still help prevent inflammation — it just does so by reducing your risk for many diseases where inflammation is involved. It’s an extremely healthy diet, encouraging you to eat foods any nutrition professional would approve of. Read on to learn why it’s so good for you.

What is the anti-inflammatory diet?

Originally developed by Harvard-educated doctor Andrew Weil, the anti-inflammatory diet’s primary goal is just what it sounds like. The objective is to reduce the risk of developing age-related diseases and conditions by treating chronic inflammation with diet. Preventing disease leads to a much healthier — and hopefully much longer — life. Avoiding inflammation-worsening foods, and eating more foods said to fight inflammation in the body, is a lot easier than you think.

Unlike many difficult to follow diets out there, the anti-inflammatory diet is designed for long-term use. It’s sustainable, especially if you modify it slightly to include all fruits and vegetables, both organic and non-organic. (The original diet prohibits eating fruits and vegetables that aren’t organic, which isn’t very affordable. You can follow an anti-inflammatory diet without this rule and still benefit from it.)

You’ll eat as many calories as you need, cut out potentially harmful foods, and learn to prepare healthy recipes you can share with family and friends. Let’s take a look at some of its other benefits, including possible disease prevention.

Benefits

The anti-inflammatory diet is based on the Mediterranean diet, so the two share similar benefits.

Heart health

The anti-inflammatory diet is extremely beneficial for your heart, possibly lowering your risk of heart disease while also combatting inflammation. Foods like fatty fish, nuts, avocados, and olive oil all contain omega-3 fatty acids, which can help keep your heart and all its essential components running at full capacity.

Weight loss

There are a few key reasons why the anti-inflammatory diet may also be able to help you lose weight and reduce your obesity risk. A high-fiber, high-protein diet leaves less room for high-sodium, high-sugar, and high-saturated fatty foods, which can all contribute to weight gain. The diet also encourages you to eliminate processed junk foods, which contribute to weight gain for the same reason.

Blood sugar control

Eating too much processed sugar is a major contributor to the development of type 2 diabetes. Dumping too much sugar into your bloodstream overworks your pancreas, which can send you into a harmful state of insulin resistance. The anti-inflammatory diet can actually improve your insulin sensitivity and prevent — sometimes even reverse — its negative, often inflammatory effects on your body.

Guidelines

Calories

The anti-inflammatory diet encourages you to eat anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day, well within mainstream dietary recommendations. The majority of these calories should come from healthy carbohydrates, though protein and healthy fats also play a prominent role in the success of the diet.

Active dieters will typically consume more calories to compensate for energy burn. If you’re trying to lose weight, you may want to consume 500 calories less than usual, along with a variety of physical activities to build muscle while burning fat.

Carbs

Ratio: About 40 to 50 percent of daily calories

To keep things simple, there are two types of carbs you should be aware of: healthy, and refined. Healthy carbs include foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and many grains. Refined carbs make up most of the processed junk foods you know and love, such as breakfast cereals and sugary drinks.

You should aim to eat mostly healthy carbs, which are typically lower in sugar and higher in fiber. Eating a variety of foods, encouraged in most healthy diets and meal plans, will help you incorporate more healthy carbs into every meal.

Protein

Ratio: About 20 to 30 percent of daily calories

Protein isn’t just something you devour after a workout to get that six-pack you have always dreamed of (though it certainly helps — sort of). Protein is essential if you want all your body’s systems to function properly. Knowing the best sources can help you eat plenty of protein while taking advantage of other foods’ many health benefits at the same time.

On the anti-inflammatory diet, you will want to avoid processed red meats, such as hot dogs and some types of bacon and sausages. You can also get a large percentage of your protein from plant based sources to pack even more benefits into each meal and snack.

Some beneficial plant protein sources include:

  • Lentils
  • Black beans
  • Wild rice
  • Chickpeas
  • Chia seeds
  • Spinach
  • Potatoes
  • Nuts and nut butters

Fat

Ratio: About 30 percent of daily calories

The anti-inflammatory diet encourages consuming mostly healthy fats, and avoiding foods high in saturated fat as much as possible. This is one reason why butter, processed meats, and processed junk foods aren’t typically part of this diet. Many manufacturers add sugars and saturated fat to products to improve texture, flavor, and shelf-life.

Healthy fats are good for your heart. According to Healthline, fatty fish, avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive oil are all excellent sources of healthy fats.

Fiber

According to Mayo Clinic, fiber doesn’t just fill you up faster by moving through your digestive system slowly. It can also help you lose weight, protect your heart, and control your blood sugar. No wonder the anti-inflammatory diet encourages slow-digesting carbs!

You should aim to consume as close to 25 grams of fiber per day as possible. A few examples of foods high in dietary fiber include:

  • Fruits with skin intact, such as apples and pears
  • Fruits without peels, such as bananas and oranges
  • Gluten-free whole grains such as rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, teff, and some special brands of oats
  • Vegetables such as broccoli, carrots, and potatoes

Fruits and vegetables

Fruits and vegetables provide a large percentage of the fiber you will likely consume on this diet. Through these foods are high in carbs, keep in mind that does not mean they are unhealthy. In fact, health professionals recommend you incorporate fruits and veggies into every meal. You should aim to consume at least seven to nine servings per day, spread out between meals and snacks if possible.

Whole grains

The vast majority of the grains you consume should consist of whole grains — especially on the anti-inflammatory diet. While you don’t have to go completely gluten-free, the diet does note that gluten can cause inflammation in some people. It’s much easier to consume whole grains when you cut out many processed foods that contain refined grains such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice.

Legumes, nuts, and seeds

Nuts, seeds, and legumes (beans, peas, and lentils) are all excellent sources of healthy carbs, healthy fat, and protein. Seeds are great for adding texture to things like yogurt, and nuts are great for healthy mid-afternoon snacking — as long as they aren’t pre-loaded with too much salt. You can incorporate beans into a variety of recipes to ramp up your protein intake without overdoing it on animal protein foods.

Seasonings

Many people struggle with healthy eating because they do not enjoy eating bland tasting food. The go-to solution is often sodium, which is a major anti-inflammatory no-no. Instead of using salt to season your food, on the anti-inflammatory diet, you will season your meals with herbs and spices. Don’t be afraid to get creative with your cooking. Low-sodium foods don’t have to taste boring.

Green tea and dark chocolate

This is where the anti-inflammatory diet differs from the Mediterranean diet the most. Green tea and dark chocolate are prominent sources of antioxidants, which help reduce free-radical damage (some call them anti-aging properties). You can consume both green tea and dark chocolate every day, as long as you do so in moderation.

Inflammation-fighting foods

Now that we’ve broken down the benefits and rules — what does one eat on an anti-inflammatory diet? Harvard Health provides a simple, easy to follow list of inflammation-fighting foods everyone should incorporate into their meals and snacks. These include:

  • Tomatoes
  • Fruits, especially berries, cherries, and oranges
  • Fatty fish (such as salmon)
  • Green, leafy vegetables (like spinach)
  • Nuts
  • Olive oil

These foods don’t just fight inflammation. They’re also good for your heart, your digestive system, and your overall health. There are many foods — mostly processed foods — that are believed to cause excess inflammation in many people. You will want to avoid those at all costs, while also incorporating the above foods into your diet.

Foods to avoid

  • Gluten. Especially for those with celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder — wheat, barley, and rye products are a no-go. For celiacs, gluten-containing foods cause an undesirable immune response. Going gluten-free, though not necessary for most people, is actually a great way to encourage you to eat fewer processed foods, many of which contain gluten. Speaking of which.
  • Highly processed junk foods. Foods high in saturated fat and added sugars aren’t good for you. You probably already know that. But you probably don’t know the role they can play in inflammation, especially in your gut. If you’re following this diet to improve your digestion or avoid digestive issues, this is one reason why it could prove effective for you.
  • Processed red meats and fried food. When you cook a food at an extremely high temperature — as you do when you’re frying something — it can create harmful byproducts. Eating too much fried food or processed meat exposes your body to more of these compounds, which increases your risk for developing unwanted inflammation.
  • High-fat dairy products. One major component of the anti-inflammatory diet is cutting back on your saturated fat intake. You should avoid full-fat cheeses, whole milk, and butter while following the anti-inflammatory diet. You can still enjoy their reduced- or low-fat versions, though.
  • Trans fat. Experts agree that it’s not safe for humans to consume artificial trans fats in any amount. Thankfully, artificial trans fats are slowly but truly disappearing from your favorite foods. Don’t rest easy just yet, though. Watch out for these trans-fatty food items.

Sample menu

Breakfast

  • Coffee (no cream) or green tea
  • Eggs (prepared to your preference)
  • Sliced avocado
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Banana or orange

Morning snack

  • Sliced apple (with skin) and almond butter

Lunch

  • White tuna with spinach
  • Homemade fruit salad

Afternoon snack

  • Handful of unsalted mixed nuts

Dinner

  • Small spinach and tomato salad with olive oil dressing
  • Grilled herb-crusted salmon
  • Green beans, seasoned with olive oil
  • Brown rice

Evening snack

  • Plain low-fat Greek yogurt
  • Fresh strawberries
  • Dark chocolate

Tips for success on the anti-inflammatory diet

  • Shop once per week. Make a list and gather all the materials you need so you’re not tempted to buy junk food when you stop at the store for one ingredient. You can even dedicate your entire Sunday afternoon to meal prepping for the week, if you want to.
  • Be adventurous. Healthy eating becomes more fun when you dare to explore new recipes and styles of eating. Don’t just stick to the same old foods you’re used to. Branch out. Try something new every week to keep your motivation soaring.
  • Don’t forget about exercise! Physical activity is a major contributor to reduced inflammation  and lower risk of chronic disease.

So. Can the anti-inflammatory diet help reduce inflammation and help you avoid disease? Indirectly, yes. In its simplest format (the version we’ve given you above), this diet is nothing more than a healthy eating plan. It doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming, boring or short-term. Eat good food, reduce your chances of getting sick, and enjoy yourself. It’s a lot easier than you think.

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