Nutrition experts often recommend eating an anti-inflammatory diet, but what does that mean, and why is it so important? An anti-inflammatory diet is a way of eating that helps reduce your risk of certain chronic diseases. It can also help manage certain health conditions.
“Food plays a huge role in our health, and a healthy diet can significantly improve our overall well-being. Diets that emphasize anti-inflammatory food choices have been shown to positively affect many aspects of our lives,” says Dewan Majid, MD, Primary Care at Magee.
Keep reading to learn about inflammation, how it affects chronic disease risk, and the benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting you. When it senses danger, your immune system signals your army of white cells to fight off an invading pathogen or heal an injury. This causes symptoms like redness, heat, or swelling from an injury or infection.
Acute (short-term) inflammation is both a helpful and necessary defense mechanism and the way your body heals itself. It usually goes away within hours or days as your body heals.
But sometimes, inflammation becomes chronic (long-term) if an infection or injury doesn’t heal. Chronic inflammation might also develop from:
- An autoimmune disease in which your body mistakenly attacks healthy tissues.
- Repeated exposure to toxins or chemicals.
- Smoking or excessive alcohol use.
- Ongoing stress.
With chronic inflammation, your immune system remains in a state of high alert for months or years. Over time, this type of inflammation damages healthy cells, tissues, and even your DNA. Medical experts think chronic inflammation is at the root of chronic diseases like:
- Heart disease and stroke.
- Alzheimer’s disease.
- Arthritis and joint diseases.
- Autoimmune diseases like lupus or inflammatory bowel disease.
Reducing chronic inflammation is critical for anyone with these and other chronic diseases — and anyone who’s at risk of developing one. Medicines help reduce inflammation or suppress your immune system if it’s attacking healthy tissues. But doctors also recommend eating an anti-inflammatory diet to help fight chronic inflammation.
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The Benefits of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Foods considered anti-inflammatory are rich in vitamins, minerals, omega-3 fats, antioxidants, and other beneficial compounds. These nutrients help support your immune system , so it can work better. An anti-inflammatory diet also protects your cells from damage and blocks harmful inflammatory pathways throughout your body.
People who practice anti-inflammatory diets tend to have a lower risk of developing most chronic diseases. If you already have a chronic condition, an anti-inflammatory diet may keep it from getting worse. It may also help you manage symptoms of that chronic condition.
Foods That Reduce Inflammation
Plant foods, oily fish, and healthy fats are among the top choices for anti-inflammatory foods. These foods, in particular, have inflammation-reducing properties:
- Deeply colored fruits like blueberries, raspberries, pomegranates, and cherries.
- Leafy green vegetables like kale and spinach.
- Cruciferous vegetables like cauliflower, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage.
- Unrefined whole grains like oats, brown rice, barley, or quinoa.
- Beans (legumes) like lentils, chickpeas, black, pinto, or kidney beans.
- Nuts and seeds.
- Olive oil and avocados.
- Oily fish like salmon, sardines, or mackerel.
- Green or black tea (unsweetened).
- Dark chocolate.
- Herbs and spices, especially turmeric, ginger, garlic, and cinnamon.
To get the most benefits from an anti-inflammatory diet, try to eat a variety of these foods daily as part of a healthy eating pattern. Studies show that following anti-inflammatory diet patterns like a Mediterranean or vegetarian diet result in lower measures of inflammation.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
Just as certain foods can reduce inflammation, others can promote more inflammation in your body. Some foods that can worsen inflammation include:
- Red meats like steak and burgers.
- Processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, or sausages.
- Foods made with white flour, like white bread, bagels, or white pasta.
- Sweet baked goods like cookies, donuts, and cakes.
- Packaged salty snack foods like chips or crackers.
- Frozen dinners and ready-to-eat meals.
- Soda and other sweetened beverages.
- French fries, fried fish, chicken, and other fried foods.
- Margarine, soybean, corn, cottonseed oil — or highly processed foods made with these oils.
Eating small amounts of these foods every once in a while may be OK. But too many of these foods too often can trigger inflammation because they’re high in:
- Saturated fats.
- Refined (white) carbohydrates, like white rice.
- Excess salt and added sugar.
- Artificial preservatives, flavors, colors, and other additives.
Over time, your immune system may view these unhealthy ingredients as toxins that can harm you. Just like an injury or infection, an unhealthy diet can trigger an inflammatory response.
The bottom line is that adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is an effective way to reduce your risk of chronic diseases. It is also recommended as part of your strategy to help manage any chronic diseases that you may already have.
If it feels daunting to change your diet, consider working with a registered dietitian. They can help you learn to make small changes, so you can build healthier habits over time.
About UPMC Nutrition Services
Nutrition is vital for maintaining your overall health. UPMC Nutrition Services offers comprehensive diet and nutrition counseling on a variety of topics, including eating disorders, weight management, and heart disease. Our team provides medical nutrition therapy for chronic conditions such as celiac disease, cancer, and diabetes. UPMC’s network of registered dietitians is available to help guide all patients toward a healthier life.