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There’s No Such Thing as an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Your friend cuts out some anti-inflammatory foods and sees massive health improvements, but it doesn’t work for you. You try the protocol an online health guru recommends to cut inflammation, but you feel worse. Why doesn’t an anti-inflammatory diet seem to be helpful for you?

The short answer is that you are an individual with unique needs. Inflammation is at the root of many annoying ailments and chronic diseases, so it’s worth digging into.

If you do this right, you may even look younger or find the energy to train for a marathon.

sore knee

What is Inflammation? 

Dr. Madiha Saeed, board-certified family physician and best-selling author of The Holistic Rx: Your Guide to Healing Chronic Inflammation and Disease, says inflammation means “the fire inside.” In an interview about white sugar and inflammation, she shared: 

Inflammation is “a hot, fierce, lifesaving reaction when your body’s immune system tries to fight off infection, heal from injuries, or protect you from disease. Acute inflammation is good and lasts a few seconds to a few days. The problem is chronic inflammation, which lasts indefinitely.”

The body’s exposure to inflammatory foods and the toxins of modern living may cause chronic inflammation, and the best way to improve symptoms is to reduce the inflammatory causes

What Diseases Are Linked to Inflammation?

Symptoms of inflammation touch almost every health category possible.

Basic physical inflammation:

  • Bloating
  • Swelling
  • Painful joints
  • Stomach pain 

Systemic inflammatory symptoms:

  • Suppressed immune system (getting sick and staying sick more than average)
  • Skin issues like eczema and candida
  • Gut dysbiosis 
  • Weight gain

The gut, skin, and immune system are interconnected, so systemic inflammation reveals itself in many ways. Candida, an overgrowth of otherwise natural yeast in the body, is often called a sugar rash

Skin inflammation is typically a visual reflection of gut inflammation, so removing sugar should be step one in any anti-inflammatory diet.

stomach pain

The more prolonged the inflammation in the body, the more likely it is to cause chronic disease, including: 

  • Diabetes
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Chronic fatigue syndrome
  • Lupus
  • Crohn’s disease and other autoimmune conditions
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure

With inflammation at the root, some see cascades of disease, such as anxiety, increasing the risk of diabetes, which increases the risk of Alzheimer’s. 

Could an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Improve Mental Health?

Mental health also takes a hit when the brain is inflamed

Dr. Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an integrative and pediatric mental health expert, explains, “There is a protective wall between our blood and brain called the blood-brain barrier. It keeps the brain safe and tells it if there’s any sickness or swelling happening in our body.”

Our brains should be protected from inflammation elsewhere, whether from infections, injuries, chronic diseases, stress, or poor food quality. Dr. Roseann clarifies that the problem occurs “if swelling keeps happening, which can make this wall weaker, cause brain swelling or neuroinflammation, and affect our mental health.”

Mental health issues connected to inflammation include

  • Brain fog 
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome (PANS/PANDAS)
  • Aggression or mood swings
  • Sensory processing disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Dementia and Alzheimer’s

Could an anti-inflammatory diet be the solution? 

What Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Cutting inflammatory foods while including more anti-inflammatory foods should reduce inflammation. Most experts describe this balance as an “anti-inflammatory diet,” although there’s no universally agreed-upon protocol for an anti-inflammatory diet. 

In reality, foods that cause inflammation in some people might be protective for others

Closely studying anti-inflammatory food lists reveals a plethora of contradictions. Foods claimed to be inflammatory by some, like wheat and legumes, show up prominently as others’ top soothing foods in the form of whole grains and non-meat protein sources. 

grains

Tomatoes are a pivotal part of the Mediterranean diet, often touted as the best anti-inflammatory diet. Unfortunately, those who suffer from autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s frequently find that nightshades, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplant, cause great intestinal distress and inflammation. Red meat gets demonized as inflammatory, yet many find that cutting grains entirely and eating a high-fat, high-protein diet – including red meat – calms their inflammation. 

Truth: An Anti-Inflammatory Diet Doesn’t Exist

Cutting some foods and adding others based on “anti-inflammatory diet” lists is as effective as wearing someone else’s clothes, hanging out with all their friends, and suddenly expecting your life trajectory to mimic theirs. 

Health is not one size fits all

Nutritionist and family health educator Jess Sherman, MEd, RHN, FDNp, describes inflammation as a relationship. “It’s the response of the immune system when it interacts with a threat,” she says, “so a food is not ‘inflammatory’ until it interacts with an immune system, either in the gut or in the blood.” 

The key to health is this: All lists of foods and special diets need to be evaluated compared to what’s happening in your unique body

Some foods might be more likely to incite an inflammatory response for many because they are more difficult for humans to digest. Partially digested food becomes a potential source of inflammation, but it is not guaranteed. The gut microbiome is another player in this intricate relationship. 

Sherman says, “In terms of ‘eating an anti-inflammatory diet,’ I think we need to be careful not to pigeonhole foods without seating them in a context. Doing so risks eliciting fear and encouraging food restriction.”

The best thing we can do to reduce inflammation is to eat a diet that supports a healthy microbiome and is packed full of micronutrients.” Her favorites include omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin C, and vitamin E, which can nudge the relationship toward a less inflamed state. 

Anti-Inflammatory Diet Options

Many diet plans are referred to as ”anti-inflammatory diets” for various reasons, typically because of the foods they omit. 

  • Ketogenic diet: This diet cuts all grains, legumes, starchy vegetables, and almost all fruits while moderating protein and increasing fat. This very low-carbohydrate diet, in which the body burns fat for fuel instead of glucose, has been shown to improve diabetes. However, if processed meats and dairy remain high, those eating “keto” could still experience inflammation.
  • Alkaline diet: Dr. Anna Cabeca combines the high greens, low red meat alkaline diet with keto in her anti-inflammatory Keto-Green diet, helpful for those with autoimmune disorders, diabetes, and hormone imbalance. She says, “Preventing chronic inflammation can also help prevent diabetes and the complications associated with it.”
  • Whole30 diet: An elimination diet that cuts sugar, natural sweeteners, and even zero-calorie sweeteners, alcohol, grains, legumes, and dairy for 30 days and intentionally reintroduces each food group. Many find that this elimination period helps ascertain food sensitivities and break cravings and habits. 
bowl of bone broth - bone broth in the Instant Pot
  • Wahls protocol: Dr. Terry Wahls created this diet to heal herself from the symptoms of multiple sclerosis, thought to be a chronic autoimmune disease. Based on the Paleo diet, the Wahls protocol omits dairy, grains, and sweeteners. It calls for vastly increasing dark leafy greens, sulfur-containing veggies, seaweed, nutritional yeast, fermented foods, fish, and meat, especially organ meat.
  • Mediterranean diet: The most mainstream option, this diet emphasizes unprocessed grains, plant foods, olive oil, and seafood, moderates dairy, and reduces red meat and sweets. 

All these anti-inflammatory diets avoid or reduce sugar and sweeteners and include many vegetables and traditional fats, so that may be a place to begin your journey. There is no need for fad diets that may do more harm than good. 

Bio-individuality: Reduce Inflammation by Figuring out YOUR Best Anti-Inflammatory Diet

If a diet that emphasizes grains and diets that eliminate grains can all be anti-inflammatory, it’s clear that bio-individuality is the name of the game. Your genetics, environment, and lifestyle choices synergize to create the body you have to work with, which means that your inflammatory foods might differ from your neighbor’s. 

Functional doctors often say, “Food is medicine,” and meet fierce contention online. People on social media won’t let anyone say, “Sugar is poison.” 

The truth is somewhere in the middle. We must each figure out our kryptonite and “Popeye muscle spinach.” 

Ultimately, the best anti-inflammatory diet for you will also depend on your personality. Some folks do better with baby steps, such as generally increasing vegetables. Others simply don’t do well with moderation and require complete elimination to be successful. 

You may need to add an anti-inflammatory food daily. Or you could moderate and increase some soothing foods while decreasing problematic options. If you can completely eliminate a food or group, you may learn the most as your body adjusts. 

Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Include

  • Bone broth, which is gut-protective and soothing to joints and solves the problem of what to do with chicken bones
  • Blueberries and all other berries and cherries for the high antioxidant value
  • More vegetables, especially cruciferous veggies like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, and kale (unless taking blood thinners or suffering from iodine deficiency)
  • Fish high in omega-3 fats like tuna, salmon, and sardines, which are some of the least expensive fish if you get them in canned form 
  • Protein, particularly eggs, if you’re not sensitive to them
  • Fats, especially olive oil and coconut oil, have been shown to be anti-inflammatory, and you can saute with olive oil safely
  • Avocado
  • Spices and herbs such as cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, and oregano 
  • Garlic 
  • Fermented foods for gut protective probiotics, including yogurt unless dairy is a trigger
fermented cabbage and carrots

Potentially Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

Although an anti-inflammatory diet that works for everyone truly doesn’t exist, even scientists don’t hesitate to identify a “pro-inflammatory diet.” In 2023, researchers published an extensive study following nearly 100,000 subjects over nine years that found a significantly higher risk of anxiety disorders in those consuming a pro-inflammatory diet. 

It can’t hurt to cut inflammatory foods as an experiment to see if symptoms subside.

Some top inflammatory foods (for some people) include:

  • White sugar 
  • Wheat/gluten/grains
  • Dairy products
  • Caffeine and alcohol
  • Beans and legumes 
  • Nuts and seeds 
  • “Industrial” oils like canola, corn, soybean, cottonseed
  • Nightshades (tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, eggplant)
  • Any food your body is sensitive to
  • Ultra-processed foods

Let’s unpack a few of those. 

Refined sugar is bad for you. Sugar feeds harmful gut bacteria, depresses the body’s immune response, negatively impacts blood sugar regulation, affects mental well-being, reduces fertility, and increases inflammation. 

yogurt

Gluten and dairy can be challenging to digest. When intestinal villi are damaged, the gut is inflamed, allowing partially digested food to enter the blood.

Caffeine and alcohol are up for discussion since green tea, coffee, and red wine are high in polyphenols – anti-inflammatory plant nutrients. 

Legumes, nuts, and seeds all contain antinutrients that protect the seed itself and further the plant’s goal of procreation, but they can also be hard on human digestion. 

Processes like soaking, sprouting, or pressure cooking can reduce the potentially aggravating antinutrients like lectins, phytic acid, and more.

Fats and oils have been controversial for decades. Why are particular industrial “seed” or “vegetable” oils considered inflammatory foods? The Cleveland Clinic addressed the truths and myths head-on. These oils are higher in omega-6 fatty acids, which tend to turn on an inflammatory response, while omega-3s calm it. 

Dr. Ritamarie Loscalzo, Certified Clinical Nutritionist and Founder of the Institute of Nutritional Endocrinology, explains: “A true anti-inflammatory diet is one that’s balanced in omega-3 and 6 fats. Ideal dietary ratio is three to four parts omega-6 to one part omega-3 because too much omega-6 leads to the overproduction of inflammatory prostaglandins.” 

In 2016, a review in the journal Nutrients highlighted that modern Americans may be averaging a ratio closer to 20:1. Therefore, your bio-individual anti-inflammatory diet might be less about avoiding all omega-6 fatty acids and more about getting back into balance by adding omega-3 fatty acids

Benefits of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Since inflammation is at the root of so many ailments, eating more anti-inflammatory foods and reducing potentially inflammatory foods helps overall health, may protect against many chronic diseases, and reduces the risk of anxiety and other mental health struggles. 

Nutritionist and author of The Antianxiety Food Solution, Trudy Scott, breaks it down: 

Eating real, whole, good quality food is foundational for preventing and alleviating anxiety, worry, panic attacks, fears, obsessive tendencies, and low mood, as well as for overall health. This type of anti-inflammatory diet has been coined nutritional psychiatry (an emerging field connecting dietary intake with psychological health), and when combined with eating according to your unique needs and using key calming nutrients, will help to calm your anxious mind.”   

Remember that discovering what foods help and harm your health is the key to living with less inflammation and greater vitality. 

Olives, rosemary, and olive oil in a wooden spoon

Eat This, Not That in Your Anti-Inflammatory Diet

How about some simple swaps, whether you’re taking baby steps or complete elimination? 

  • Olive oil instead of seed oils like corn, canola, soy, and cottonseed
  • Salmon as an alternative to processed meats like pepperoni and sausage
  • Salad high in deep green color instead of a lunchmeat sandwich
  • Handful of nuts instead of a handful of potato chips or crackers
  • Fresh fruits rather than applesauce or fruit snacks
  • Soups made with homemade broth instead of pasta, especially pasta with cream sauces or cheese if dairy is a potential problem
  • Taco salad rather than wheat tortillas or corn chips 
  • Raw veggies and hummus or guacamole as opposed to chips with highly processed, dairy-laden dips
  • A bowl of blueberries in place of a bowl of M&M’s
  • Drink bone broth rather than soda
  • Grapes or raisins instead of candy 
  • Dark chocolate over milk chocolate 
  • Frozen homemade smoothie with “greens” powder and berries in place of ice cream
  • Hug someone instead of celebrating with cookies and cake
  • Red wine rather than beer
  • Sparkling water instead of alcohol 

Is Vegetarian or Vegan an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Maybe, maybe not. Most vegetarians and vegans eat more vegetables, which is an anti-inflammatory choice for most. However, all that fiber and possibly more nightshades could be disastrous for some. 

Plant-based diets often rely heavily on grains and legumes, which might be inflammatory for many. On the other hand, if changing to a vegan diet means you’re eating far less processed foods and more whole foods, that alone may reduce your inflammatory cascade. 

Eliminating meat and eggs certainly isn’t the only way to eat a more anti-inflammatory diet … for most people. 

vegetables

More Ways to Reduce Inflammation 

If the root cause of inflammation isn’t food, one may need to attack the problem with something other than food, such as: 

  • Get better sleep
  • Take OTC NSAIDs like Ibuprofen
  • Reduce stress, seek trauma therapy
  • Avoid smoking
  • Lose weight
  • Balance your hormones
  • Care for your thyroid 
  • Eradicate mold or other environmental toxins
  • Heal leaky gut

Food sensitivities or inflammation from food aren’t always a food problem,” says Dr. Nattha Wannissorn, FDN-P. “The root causes could come from other factors that cause leaky gut, such as stress, traumas, and mold.”

This article originally appeared on Pink When.

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.
Category: Special Diets

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