Anti-Inflammatory Diet: What to Eat to Lower Inflammation
Inflammation is like a double-edged sword.
On one hand, acute or short-term inflammation is necessary to fend off foreign invaders and heal injuries.
But on the other hand, chronic or long-term inflammation can weaken the immune system and damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs.
Fortunately, diet plays a key role in controlling inflammation.
This article explains what to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet to lower inflammation and provides a 3-day sample anti-inflammatory diet menu.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural component of your body’s defense system.
It’s the process by which the immune system recognizes and destroys harmful substances such as allergens, bacteria, viruses, and damaged cells, and starts the healing process (1).
Inflammation may be acute, lasting for a few days, or it may be chronic, lasting several months to years (1).
Acute inflammation is good and a necessary process but when the inflammation persists, it becomes chronic and causes harmful health effects.
In fact, chronic inflammation is associated with many diseases, including (2):
- heart disease
- kidney disease
- Barrett’s esophagus
- arthritis, such as psoriatic and rheumatoid arthritis
- irritable bowel disease, including Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis
- liver diseases, including fatty liver and cirrhosis
- hidradenitis suppurativa
Some of the common signs and symptoms of chronic inflammation include:
- joint or muscle pain
- chronic fatigue and sleeping problems
- depression, anxiety, and mood disorders
- digestive issues, such as constipation or diarrhea
- unintentional weight gain or weight loss
- frequent infections
While there’s no best test for measuring chronic inflammation, doctors commonly use blood tests that measure markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP), fibrinogen, and tumor necrosis factor (TNF), among others (1).
Tools for measuring inflammation
Diet plays a significant role in controlling chronic inflammation.
Some foods tend to be anti-inflammatory, meaning they lower inflammation, whereas others are considered pro-inflammatory, meaning they increase inflammation.
A tool called the dietary inflammatory index (DII) was developed to measure the inflammatory potential of foods and their components based on their effects on inflammatory blood markers and risk for chronic disease (3).
The DII assigns a food or food component a positive 1 if it’s pro-inflammatory, a negative 1 if it’s anti-inflammatory, or a 0 if it has no effect on inflammation (4).
Other indexes widely used for assessing the inflammatory potential of diets include the empirical dietary inflammatory pattern (EDIP) and the anti-inflammatory diet index (AIDI) (5, 6).
Although the DII remains the most widely used index for research, the EDIP may be a more valid index for predicting changes in inflammatory markers (7).
Foods to eat and limit
Anti-inflammatory foods tend to be rich in fiber and beneficial plant compounds called polyphenols, whereas pro-inflammatory foods tend to be highly processed and rich in sugar and saturated fats.
Anti-inflammatory foods to eat
Minimally processed, whole foods tend to be the most anti-inflammatory.
Here is a list of anti-inflammatory foods to eat (4, 5, 6):
- Fruits: apples, apricots, avocados, bananas, berries, cantaloupe, oranges, pears, plums, watermelon, etc.
- Vegetables: arugula, asparagus, beets, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, mushrooms, onions, peppers, squash spinach, squash, yams, etc.
- Whole grains: brown rice, buckwheat, oats, popcorn, spelt, and whole-grain bread and pasta
- Nuts and seeds: almonds, Brazil nuts, cashew nuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts, etc.
- Beans and legumes: black beans, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils, peas, pinto beans, peas, peanuts, and soybeans
- Poultry: eggs and skinless, boneless chicken or turkey breast
- Seafood: cod, herring, salmon, mackerel, oysters, tuna
- Dairy: milk, cottage cheese, and yogurt
- Oils: extra-virgin olive and canola oil
- Coffee and tea
- Alcohol: including beer and wine and moderation
Pro-inflammatory foods to limit
Although many foods tend to be pro-inflammatory, it’s the quality of your diet as a whole that truly matters.
As such, you may still enjoy some of these foods but it’s best to do so in moderation.
Here are foods that tend to be pro-inflammatory (4, 5, 6):
- Processed meat: bacon, canned meats, deli meats, hot dogs, salami, and smoked meats
- Red meat: beef, pork, or lamb
- Refined grains: crackers, desserts, some breakfast cereals, white bread, white rice, pasta, pancakes, waffles, etc.
- Fried foods: fried fish, french fries, onion rings, chicken strips, etc.
- Candy and other sweets
- Sugary drinks: fruit juice, regular soda and energy drinks, and sugar-sweetened coffees or teas
3-day sample anti-inflammatory diet
Here’s a 3-day sample anti-inflammatory diet:
- Breakfast: overnight oats and black coffee
- Lunch: chopped cobb salad with chicken
- Snack: Greek yogurt, apple slices, and almonds
- Dinner: almond-crusted trout and swiss chard
Day 2 (vegan)
- Breakfast: tofu scamble and oatmeal topped with berries
- Lunch: quinoa salad
- Snack: chia pudding
- Dinner: black beans and lime rice
- Breakfast: Greek yogurt parfait
- Lunch: avocado, tomato, and chicken sandwich
- Snack: cottage cheese and peaches
- Dinner: chopped salmon salad
Owing to inflammation’s role in promoting the development and worsening of a variety of diseases and conditions, following an anti-inflammatory diet offers many health benefits.
May support a healthy weight
Overweight and obesity are associated with low-grade chronic inflammation, which can negatively affect many organs and their ability to function normally.
One study involving more than 7,000 participants found that those with a higher DII score — indicating a more pro-inflammatory diet — were more likely to have a higher body mass index (BMI) and larger waist circumference than those with a lower DII score (8).
Although this study didn’t assess the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet on weight loss, it highlights the role inflammation has in the development of obesity and that reducing this inflammation with an anti-inflammatory diet may help support weight loss.
May reduce the risk of and treat diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is a condition where the body’s cells don’t respond to insulin as they should, resulting in abnormally high blood sugar levels.
Insulin is the hormone that lowers blood sugar by transporting it into cells to be used as energy or stored for later use.
Inflammation is the primary driver of insulin resistance and following a pro-inflammatory diet can increase the risk of developing diabetes and make it more difficult to manage in people with the condition.
Conversely, following an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce your risk of developing diabetes, or if you already have diabetes, decrease high blood sugar.
In a study of more than 4,400 people with and without diabetes, a higher DII was associated with significantly higher blood sugar levels and odds of having diabetes compared with those with a lower DII (9).
May help with depression
Depression is a mental disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in activities (10).
Although multiple factors are associated with its development, inflammation is thought to play a role (11).
Indeed, a review of 6 studies involving nearly 50,000 patients found that a higher DII compared with a lower DII was associated with a 23% greater risk of depression, particularly in women (12).
While there’s currently no cure for depression, following an anti-inflammatory diet may help you better manage the condition, in part by positively influencing the gut microbiome, which plays a critical role in the regulation of mood, anxiety, and stress responsiveness (13).
Mostly everyone can benefit from an anti-inflammatory diet, especially those who follow a pro-inflammatory diet, such as the Western or standard American diet.
As such, there are no true downsides to an anti-inflammatory diet for those who can consistently access, purchase, and prepare the foods.
However, not everyone has these privileges, representing a downside of the diet for some people.
If cost is the primary barrier, several anti-inflammatory foods are relatively inexpensive, including oats, eggs, lentils, and canned vegetables or beans.
And although assistance programs are often stigmatized, they exist for a reason and you should accept the support if you’re in need.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — formally known as food stamps — is the most well-known program, but several other state and federal programs exist as well.
Here is a list of the various food assistance programs and information about them.
Remember, it’s the composition of your diet as a whole that matters the most — not the individual nutrients or foods.
As such, it’s OK to include some foods that tend to be pro-inflammatory in your diet based on your ability to access, purchase, and prepare healthy foods.
The bottom line
Diet plays an important role in managing inflammation.
Certain foods tend to promote inflammation whereas others decrease inflammation.
An anti-inflammatory diet consists primarily of foods that decrease inflammation and limits those that promote inflammation.
Following an anti-inflammatory diet can reduce your risk of several diseases and conditions while also helping you better manage them.
Some people may have difficulties consistently accessing, purchasing, or preparing foods on an anti-inflammatory diet but resources exist to reduce or eliminate these barriers.