The anti-inflammatory diet has recently taken a starring role in the news, which is not surprising considering celebrities such as Gisele Bündchen, Tom Brady, and Anne Hathaway have been applauding the diet for its detoxifying and energizing effects. To understand the benefits of the anti-inflammatory diet, we first need to examine what inflammation means and how it can have potentially far-reaching consequences for your health. We’ll also take a look at some of the most popular anti-inflammatory foods recommended by nutritionists and how they can be incorporated into your diet.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is a broad term used to describe your body’s immune response to stress or harm. This can include anything from stubbing your toe to having the flu to more serious afflictions like heart disease and cancer. There are two types of inflammation, acute and chronic.
What is acute inflammation?
Acute inflammation occurs when white blood cells move to the area of the body that’s under stress. This defense mechanism helps to protect and heal the area while causing the area under attack to appear red and inflamed. In the case of acute inflammation this is a welcome response; it’s an indication that your body is attempting to defend and heal itself from damage.
What is chronic inflammation?
Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation is a signal that your body is suffering from a long-term issue such as asthma, tuberculosis, gum disease, certain types of cancer, heart disease, and even hay fever. Chronic inflammation can also be a response to environmental stressors such as cigarette smoke build-up in the lungs or surplus amounts of fat cells, especially in the abdomen.
A Note on Autoimmune Diseases
According to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association, there are roughly 50 millions Americans who suffer from persistent autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, celiac disease, and psoriasis. According to MedicineNet, an autoimmune disorder is “an illness that occurs when the body tissues are attacked by its own immune system. The immune system is a complex organization within the body that is designed normally to ‘seek and destroy’ invaders of the body, including infectious agents. Patients with autoimmune diseases frequently have unusual antibodies circulating in their blood that target their own body tissues.” Although these chronic diseases exist hand-in-hand with inflammation, it can be difficult to know whether the inflammation is a cause or a byproduct of the disease. In an interview with Today’s Dietitian, Noel R. Rose, MD, PhD, explains the conundrum: “Is it caused by inflammation and autoimmune disease comes secondarily, or is it caused by autoimmunity? The evidence is unclear.”
So who benefits from the anti-inflammatory diet?
The anti-inflammatory diet is high in naturally occurring omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, making it a great template for healthy eating in general. In fact, a recent study conducted at the Ohio State University showed that women who had primarily inflammatory diets lost larger amounts of bone density than their peers who stuck to an anti-inflammatory diet. As with any notable alteration in your diet, it’s important to consult a medical professional, ideally a doctor or dietitian, before making any significant changes.
What about nightshades?
You may have heard some celebrity advocates of the anti-inflammatory diet talk about the importance of avoiding foods that fall into the “nightshade” category. Nightshades are vegetables that belong to the Solanaceae plant family, including tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, and eggplants. Why would you want to avoid these seemingly healthy vegetables? Despite the fact that these are presented as an absolute no-no for people following the anti-inflammatory diet, there is actually scant peer-reviewed research that nightshades pose any kind of threat to your health. In fact, most of the uproar over nightshades seems to be based on superstition rather than fact; people associate nightshades with “deadly nightshade,” which is the nickname for Atropa belladonna, a plant that is toxic if eaten in large quantities. Another popular misconception about nightshades is that they contain a toxin called solanine, which is most often visible as the green “eyes” on potatoes. But cutting away these growths with a knife will remove any potential risks associated with solanine, allowing you to eat potatoes to your heart’s content.
Michelle Babb, a registered dietician and author of the book Anti-Inflammatory Eating for a Happy Healthy Brain, says that sardines are at the top of her list of anti-inflammatory foods in part because they are full of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. Wary of eating this small but nutritionally mighty fish? Babb suggests adding them to your salad dressing for a delicious hit of umami: “My favorite way to eat them is to mash them up with some stone ground mustard and a little olive oil and then add them to a hefty serving of mixed greens with shredded carrots, purple cabbage, radishes, and jicama. It’s a great anti-inflammatory combo and it makes a very satisfying lunch that carries through the afternoon.” Babb also recommends sardines because of their size; the smaller the fish the less risk of heavy metal contamination that is often found in larger fish.
A commonly used spice in East Asian cooking, turmeric is now praised all over the world for its anti-inflammatory properties thanks to curcumin, a compound that has shown promise for its anti-inflammatory effects in relation to many inflammatory diseases. An unmistakable bright yellow, turmeric can be found as a dried and ground up powder or in its original root form (if you’re looking for raw turmeric in the grocery store it looks like a slightly smaller version of ginger root). Madeline Given, a nutritional consultant and author of The Anti-Inflammatory Cookbook: No Hassle 30-Minute Recipes to Reduce Inflammation, is a huge fan of turmeric. She raves, “I recently read a study that mentioned health benefits are seen when only 1/50th of a teaspoon is consumed over a couple months,” which makes this superfood an essential ingredient for anyone interested in eating an anti-inflammatory diet. Given’s favorite way to use turmeric is to coat roasted veggies with the powdered version or to add it to smoothies, adjusting for flavor with some honey and lemon. Another popular way to enjoy turmeric is in golden milk, a warm and soothing non-dairy beverage that Given likes to drink with the addition of cinnamon, honey, and ginger.
Kale is a known nutritional superstar and can be found on plenty of Top 10 healthiest food lists, and its role as an anti-inflammatory food is just as vital. High in vitamin K and loaded with phytonutrients that play a role in controlling inflammation, kale is one anti-inflammatory food that’s a no-brainer. Raw kale can be difficult to munch on, so Babb recommends giving it a good massage before you eat it. Her favorite way to use raw kale? “I prefer Tuscan flat leaf kale, and I like to strip the leaves from the stem, chop the leaves and massage half of an avocado into the kale until it takes on the appearance of wilted or steamed kale. Then I add whatever veggies I have on hand and toss with some balsamic vinegar and some olive oil.” Raw kale can also be added to smoothies that have plenty of citrus, ripe berries, or ginger (all anti-inflammatory foods in and of themselves) to help mask any overly green flavors that may arise from the kale.
Ginger has long been recognized for its healing properties, especially when it comes to its proven track record with gastrointestinal issues such as nausea, upset stomach, and loss of appetite. Ginger has been used all over the world for thousands of years for both its healing properties and its distinct flavor, which can be found in curry, ginger ales, and baked goods. But just what is it about ginger that makes it so beneficial to your health? Ginger contains an active compound called gingerol that has extremely powerful anti-inflammatory effects when eaten or used topically. A University of Miami study on knee pain–associated osteoarthritis concluded that a powerful ginger concentrate reduced symptoms by up to 40 percent compared with a placebo. Get cozy with a mug of homemade chai that’s been spiced with raw gingerroot or whip up a batch of ginger simple syrup and add it to sparkling water (or use it the next time you’re planning on making Moscow Mules). Grated or minced gingerroot adds fantastic flavor to stir fry sauces, marinades, curry, and kale smoothies so you’ll want to make sure you have this flavorful ingredient handy.
With their beautiful deep red or golden color and earthy flavor, it’s hard to resist beets. Most people who have an aversion to this powerful anti-inflammatory ingredient have unfortunately only eaten the flabby beet spears that come from a can, but beets are a food worth revisiting. Not only do they have anti-inflammatory properties but they’ve also been found to reduce blood pressure and even help enhance athletic performance. Beets contain two especially potent compounds call betanin and vulgaxanthin, both of which inhibit enzymes that can trigger inflammation and are an incredible source of antioxidants that help to protect cells from environmental stress. Wrap whole beets in foil and roast in a 400-degree oven for an hour to an hour and a half depending on their size. Enjoy thinly sliced and topped with fresh goat cheese or feta and fresh herbs for a treat that will have you wondering where beets have been your entire life. Beets can also be grated while raw and added to green salads or soups. If you’re worried about the inevitable red stain on your hands use a pair of rubber gloves while handling beets.
Pineapple contains an impressive anti-inflammatory compound called bromelain, a digestive enzyme that has shown great promise as an immune system regulator that helps to prevent unnecessary inflammation when taken as a supplement. (Bromelain can also cause canker sores when you eat too much of it.) Pineapple is full of disease-fighting phytonutrients and antioxidants, all of which play an impressive role in combating persistent inflammation. Full of natural sweetness, pineapple can easily be incorporated into fruit salads and smoothies. Salmon, which is another food that fights inflammation, is right at home served with a pineapple salsa or pineapple-based marinade. To boost the sweetness of underripe pineapple, try sprinkling it with a small pinch of sea salt and letting it sit for a few minutes. The saltiness will contrast with the sweetness, making it more pronounced.
What Not to Eat When You’re Following the Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Foods that play a role in inflammation will be familiar to anyone looking to eat a healthier diet in general, although again, it’s best to talk to a healthcare professional before cutting certain foods out completely. Highly processed foods are by far the most inflammatory on the list of “do nots” and can include refined carbohydrates such as white flour and other grains as well as white sugar. Unhealthy fats and hydrogenated oils such as corn oil and canola oil should also be avoided as much as possible. Grain-fed red meat can also problematic, although grass-fed and -finished beef or buffalo can be eaten sparingly. Although many people tolerate dairy, it can be a source of inflammation for others, so follow your gut and choose anti-inflammatory non-dairy products made from rice, almonds, or coconut if you’re experiencing unpleasant side effects from eating regular dairy.
What does a day of anti-inflammatory eating look like?
Breakfast: A smoothie made from green apple, frozen berries, raw kale, lemon juice, honey, ginger, chia seeds, and water Snack: A small handful of toasted walnuts with 1 cup of blueberries Lunch: Big salad with your choice of veggies (suggestions could include purple cabbage, grated jicama or carrots, raw kale that’s been lightly massaged, radishes, bell peppers, or avocado), flax seeds, and a dressing made from stone-ground mustard, a couple of mashed sardines, olive oil, and a splash of red wine vinegar Snack: A Quinoa Coconut-Cacao Bar Dinner: Grilled salmon filet with fresh pineapple salsa (diced pineapple, red onion, red pepper, chopped cilantro, and a squeeze of orange juice) and steamed broccoli Bedtime snack: A mug of golden milk with turmeric or homemade chai