Inflammation is a big buzzword in nutrition these days—and for good reason: About 60% of Americans have a condition caused by or complicated by chronic inflammation. However, an anti-inflammatory diet, which is a simple eating plan consisting of common foods found at the grocery store, can help tamp down those flames.
What Is Inflammation?
Cut your finger, and it might be a little swollen for a day or so. Get a cold, and you’re coughing up mucus for a bit. These reactions are called acute inflammation, and it’s usually a very good thing as it’s your immune cells rallying to fight off bacteria that could infiltrate the affected site.
However, while acute inflammation is short-lived, chronic inflammation hangs around for months, years or even a lifetime. Instead of fending off bad guys like bacteria or viruses, your immune system spins out of whack, damaging arteries and organs.
Why the betrayal? In some instances, chronic inflammation can stem from a case of acute inflammation that never resolved itself, which can happen when the body doesn’t make enough of the chemicals responsible for calling off the immune response. Another culprit is obesity, especially when there’s too much fat parked in and around the liver and other organs. This abdominal, or visceral, fat spews out inflammatory compounds, which take aim at cells and tissues all over the body.
Aside from its link to obesity, chronic inflammation is also a major cause—and consequence—of top killers of Americans, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease, dementia, asthma, many types of cancer, osteoporosis and depression. In fact, you could have chronic inflammation and not even know it.
“Unlike the obvious symptoms of acute inflammation, [low-grade] chronic inflammation silently damages the body,” says Mari Anoushka Ricker, M.D., a director at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona and an associate professor at the university.
Blood tests for inflammation can include tests that detect the C-reactive protein (CRP, a protein produced by the liver in response to inflammation) and the erythrocyte sedimentation rate (which measures the speed that red blood cells pool in a test tube—a faster rate may mean more inflammatory compounds). But these tests aren’t routinely ordered, and may or may not reveal chronic inflammation, especially in its early stages.
What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
The American way of eating is a recipe for chronic inflammation, thanks to its emphasis on saturated fats, added sugars, refined carbs and sodium.
Meanwhile, there are thousands of health-promoting substances in healthier foods, including wider-known ones like vitamins, minerals, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids, and lesser known ones, such as flavan-3-ols (in tea and cocoa) and anthocyanins (in blueberries, strawberries, raspberries and other red and purple plant foods). Just as certain chemicals in the body cause inflammation, naturally-occurring chemicals in certain foods can prevent and combat it by providing key nutrients. For example:
- Vitamin E (in nuts and seeds) and vitamin C (in cauliflower, citrus and berries) are antioxidants that deactivate free radicals, which are inflammatory molecules that drift into the body from pollution, cigarette smoke, sun radiation, poor diet or are created in the course of normal body metabolism.
- Omega-3 fatty acids in fish suppress the production of inflammatory compounds while ramping up chemicals that cool down inflammation.
- Fiber in whole grains, fruit, legumes and other vegetables fuels microbes in your intestines, which return the favor by producing butyrate, an anti-inflammatory fatty acid that protects against heart disease and offers other benefits.
Eat enough foods rich in these inflammation fighters, and you’ve got an anti-inflammatory diet.
Types of Anti-Inflammatory Diets
Long before the invention of cheese curls, chicken nuggets, soda and all the other ultra-processed foods that make up the bulk of the average American diet, people around the globe thrived on their traditional diets. As different as a Chinese stir-fry might seem from a fresh Italian pasta topped with marinara sauce, at its core, a traditional diet meets an anti-inflammatory diet checklist.
Below is a roundup of the more well-researched anti-inflammatory eating patterns from across the world, as well as the DASH diet, which takes its cue from traditional diets.
Traditional Mediterranean Diet
Italy, Greece, the south of France, Lebanon and other countries along the Mediterranean Sea have unique cuisines, but they share many of the same ingredients. Research suggests the Mediterranean diet helps ward off a bevy of inflammatory-based diseases, including obesity, cardiovascular diseases, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, allergies, Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
To pluck just one study of hundreds, researchers tracked thousands of Greek adults ages 20 to 86 for four years. For those adhering most closely to a Mediterranean-style diet, deaths from heart disease dropped by one-third, and the group experienced a quarter fewer cancer deaths and deaths from any cause.
Characteristics of a traditional Mediterranean diet include:
- A wide diversity of fruit, vegetables and minimally processed grains and legumes form the bulk of the diet.
- Olive oil, nuts and seeds are the main fat sources.
- Fish is the principal animal protein. A small portion of red meat is eaten just once every week or two.
- Small amounts of cheese and yogurt are the principal dairy foods, with next to no butter or cream.
- Wine is allowed in low to moderate amounts and only with meals.
- Sweets are relegated to celebrations and based on nuts, olive oil and honey A favorite snack: figs stuffed with walnuts.
Traditional Okinawan Diet
Okinawa is a Japanese island famous for having a high rate of its people reach 100 years old in good health. The local diet gets much of the credit.
“The overall dietary pattern is dominated by anti-inflammatory vegetables, particularly Okinawan sweet potatoes,” says Bradley J. Willcox, M.D., a professor of geriatric medicine and director of research at the Department of Geriatric Medicine for the John A. Burns School of Medicine at the University of Hawaii.
“They also have the highest soy consumption in Japan, and likely, the world,” he says, adding the diet also boasts low amounts of pro-inflammatory foods, such as added sugar, saturated fat and red meat.
A traditional Okinawan diet is:
- Low calorie
- Rich in vegetables, including seaweed
- Rich in legumes, particularly soy
- Moderate in fish
- Low in meat and dairy
- Moderate in alcohol
While this may sound like any other healthy diet, there are unique elements, such as:
- It contains lots of soy. The diet averages about 3 ounces of tofu, miso and other soy foods daily. Soy contains anti-inflammatory isoflavones and other protective compounds, and is linked to cardiovascular health.
- It’s rich in seaweed. You may be familiar with nori—the dark sushi wrapper— but it’s just one of more than a dozen types of seaweed in Okinawan cuisine. They’re rich in protective compounds, such as astaxanthin, a powerful antioxidant and inflammation-quencher.
- Okinawan sweet potato is the main starch. Sure, it’s eaten in other cuisines, but it’s not fried and is the main starch in the traditional Okinawan diet. It’s rich in anti-inflammatory nutrients such as beta-carotene (the orange pigment), anthocyanins and vitamins E and C.
- It’s low-fat. The Okinawan diet certainly shares similarities with the popular Mediterranean diet, but its main differentiator is that it has far less fat, says Willcox. While the Mediterranean diet typically consists of 30% to 40% healthy, mainly monounsaturated fats, the traditional Okinawan diet consists of only about 10% fat.
Traditional Nordic Diet
The cuisines of Denmark, Sweden and Finland differ, but traditionally, they share core healthy foods, including:
- Whole rye products (bread, muesli)
- Canola oil as the principle oil
These foods provide anti-inflammatory benefits due to a wealth of nutrients. Rye deserves a special shoutout—it’s a grain that’s been shown to help reduce blood sugar, the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein, and PSA (a marker for prostate cancer in men).
People who adhere more closely to this way of eating have lower blood levels of C-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation, according to a University of Eastern Finland review of the research.
Especially protective are fruit (apples, pears, berries), grains (rye, oat and barley) and diets that limit non-lean and processed meat and keep alcohol in moderation. The review also found that even a short-term stint on a healthy Nordic diet can improve certain inflammatory markers and trim off pounds. The randomized studies—done in various Nordic countries, and lasting six to 24 weeks—assigned a healthy Nordic diet to one group while the other stayed on the modern (and less healthy) diet of the country.
A healthy Nordic diet may also have big payoffs when it comes to type 2 diabetes protection, a disease closely linked with chronic inflammation. In a study tracking 57,053 middle-aged Danes for 15 years, those whose diet most closely mirrored a healthy Nordic pattern cut risk for type 2 diabetes by 25% (for women) and 38% (for men), compared to people whose diets strayed most from the healthy paradigm.
Traditional Mexican Diet
Another popular, anti-inflammatory eating pattern hails from Mexico. Mainstays of a traditional Mexican diet include:
- Corn tortillas
- A wealth of fruits and vegetables (including hot peppers)
- Rice (brown and white)
Indeed, research has linked a traditional Mexican diet to lower inflammation. A National Cancer Institute-funded study of 493 post-menopausal women of Mexican descent living in the U.S. found that those following a more traditional Mexican diet averaged a 23% lower CRP score—the blood marker of inflammation.
Legumes, which play a starring role in Mexican cuisine, are linked to protection from an impressive lineup of inflammatory-related conditions: High blood pressure, obesity, high blood cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. How does a bean-based diet manage all that? According to a review in Advances in Nutrition much of the credit goes to its very high fiber level, which has bodywide effects:
- Reduces inflammation, especially when legumes replace red meat
- Reduces “bad” cholesterol
- Blunts the rise in blood sugar after a meal, which over time helps prevent type 2 diabetes and inflammation
- Quells appetite, which helps with weight loss
Legumes are so nutritious that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends we consume them weekly.
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)
The DASH diet was created in the 1990s in the United States as a way to lower high blood pressure (hypertension). It does that—and more. A 2018 review of several studies found that DASH significantly lowers CRP compared to a typical American diet.
DASH follows the anti-inflammation playbook. It’s rich in fruits and vegetables, most grains are whole, its protein sources are mainly fish, poultry and legumes and it limits pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat, sweets and sugary beverages.
Another perk of the DASH Diet is that it can lower your LDL. Excessive saturated fat raises LDL—the “bad” blood cholesterol—but DASH limits foods high in this fat, which are also known to trigger inflammation. These foods include fatty meat, high-fat dairy (butter, cream, cheese, whole milk), and coconut, palm and palm kernel oils. Instead, the menu features fat-free or low-fat dairy and vegetable oils, such as canola, corn, olive and safflower oil.
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