What are anti-inflammatory diets and what conditions do they help with?
Anti-inflammatory diets are especially trendy these days, mostly thanks to the celebrities who have sung their praises. Venus Williams has turned to an anti-inflammatory diet to manage her autoimmune disorder, Tom Brady to enhance his athletic prowess, according to Health. Tia Mowry followed one to curb her endometriosis symptoms, per Self. But do anti-inflammatory diets work, or should we regard them with the same skepticism as any celebrity-endorsed diet?
Mic did some digging — and as it turns out, they’re not just a Goopy Hollywood fad. Research suggests they could help you battle several conditions, but you might want to keep a few caveats in mind.
First things first: What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s response to an injury or infection, triggered when damaged tissue secretes chemical signals that tell immune cells to migrate to the affected area, where they then begin repairs or trap the culprit, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Meanwhile, blood vessels release fluid at the affected site, resulting in redness, swelling, and soreness.
This acute inflammation, weirdly, is a good thing; it’s crucial for your body to heal. Inflammation becomes a problem when it occurs throughout the body in a low-grade, chronic manner, the Mayo Clinic explains. Chronic inflammation can contribute to the accumulation of plaque in your arteries, increasing your risk of stroke and heart disease. Research has also implicated it in diabetes, cancer, depression, and other conditions, per the Cleveland Clinic.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
“Anti-inflammatory diet” is a broad term for any diet high in foods believed to treat and alleviate chronic inflammation. These diets generally consist of a diversity of mostly plant-based whole foods; they avoid foods thought to promote chronic inflammation — namely, ones high in trans, saturated, and other unhealthy fats, as well as sugary, refined, and animal-based foods, says Kaylan Baban, chief wellness officer and assistant professor of medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.
Anti-inflammatory foods can include vegan or vegetarian diets, for instance, or the Okinawa, Mediterranean, and other diets from so-called Blue Zones, regions of the world where people tend to be healthiest and live longest.
Do anti-inflammatory diets actually reduce chronic inflammation?
“There is absolutely evidence to support a diet that is richer in anti-inflammatory foods and lower pro-inflammatory foods,” Baban tells Mic. Much of that evidence comes from large epidemiological studies that look at diseases in populations, like the Seventh-day Adventists — their church promotes a plant-based diet — in Loma Linda, California (another Blue Zone).
“What they demonstrate is that… when you go from a standard American diet, to a whole food, plant-based, anti-inflammatory diet, you see a significant decline in heart disease, dementia, diabetes, certain types of cancer, a longer life, and a better quality of life,” Baban explains.
For instance, a February 2019 study of 650 white adult Seventh-day Adventists found that vegans and vegetarians (which included people who ate eggs, dairy, and/or seafood, but no red meat or poultry) — in other words, those whose diets were more anti-inflammatory — had significantly lower cardiovascular disease risk factor levels than non-vegetarians. A larger study showed that those who followed vegan and vegetarian diets had a lower risk of colorectal cancer than non-vegetarians, while a study of more than 73,000 Seventh-day Adventists found that vegans and vegetarians had significantly lower death rates than non-vegetarians.
While it's questionable whether an anti-inflammatory diet will, say, up your athletic performance, there's sufficient evidence that it could help you prevent various chronic diseases and possibly live longer.
Lab-based studies investigating what happens in the body when people eat pro-inflammatory foods also provide evidence that anti-inflammatory diets could lower chronic inflammation, Baban says. In one study of nearly 3,700 women, for example, those who consumed more red meat tended to have higher concentrations of molecular indicators of inflammation in their blood plasma.
So while it's questionable whether an anti-inflammatory diet will, say, up your athletic performance, per Vox, there's sufficient evidence that it could help you prevent various chronic diseases and possibly live longer.
That said, while diet is important, fitting it within an overall anti-inflammatory lifestyle can allow you to further prevent chronic inflammation. For many people, that means learning how to manage stress, which studies have also associated with chronic inflammation.
How do I start following an anti-inflammatory diet?
Baban suggests using author and journalist Michael Pollan’s advice as a starting point: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In other words, eat a moderate amount of mostly plant-based whole foods that your great-grandparents would actually recognize, she says.
For more in-depth guidance, Baban recommends physician Michael Greger’s resources, which are evidence-based, such as his book, How Not to Die, which outlines how nutrition and other lifestyle changes could stave off or treat heart disease and other major causes of death.
You could also refer to physician Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory food pyramid, although Baban notes that parts of it need to catch up with current research. For instance, it includes red wine, despite there now being sufficient evidence that alcohol is pro-inflammatory — “but if you want a glass of wine once in a while, knock yourself out,” she says.
As you do more research on anti-inflammatory diets, you might encounter websites that draw up lists of anti-inflammatory foods to eat and pro-inflammatory foods to avoid. But what’s important is your overall eating pattern, that is, whether you’re consuming mostly whole, plant-based foods, Baban says, not whether your diet includes a particular, anti-inflammatory “superfood,” like chia seeds or goji berries. By the same token, if your favorite food is pro-inflammatory, you don’t need to banish it from your diet altogether—just limit yourself to enjoying it every now and then.
What’s important is your overall eating pattern, that is, whether you’re consuming mostly whole, plant-based foods — not whether your diet includes a particular, anti-inflammatory “superfood,” like chia seeds or goji berries.
And while supplements might be all the rage, Baban notes that “food is a better way to go.” For example, there’s more evidence to back the anti-inflammatory properties of turmeric than supplements containing curcumin, the main active ingredient in turmeric, she adds.
Also be wary of any resources that carry a hefty price tag; “it shouldn’t cost a lot money to eat this way," she says. The same goes for diets that try to get you hooked on specific foods, she adds, as well as restrictive diets that eliminate large categories of whole, plant-based foods, like Whole30, which may seem healthy, but cuts out beans and legumes. Vox has also pointed out that Tom Brady's anti-inflammatory diet is highly restrictive.
And while supplements might be all the rage, Baban notes that “food is a better way to go.”
Remember, anti-inflammatory diets were derived from traditional ways of eating, which were meant to be sustainable and didn’t cause unnecessary (potentially pro-inflammatory) stress, Baban says. If they sound commonsense and straightforward, it’s because they’re supposed to be.