Everything you need to know about the anti-inflammatory diet

The jury may be out on why exactly certain foods help reduce inflammation, but experts all agree that this eating plan is a healthy one.
Healthy lunch bowl salmon and broccoli with asparagus and rice
A salmon, brown rice and veggie bowl is packed with omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and phytochemicals that can help reduce inflammation.wmaster890 / Getty Images/iStockphoto

Thanks to a certain high-profile NFL quarterback and his supermodel wife, the anti-inflammatory diet may make you think of eliminating tomatoes and eggplants from your plate. But the diet entails many more foods than just nightshades. (But yes, we’ll get to them. Keep reading.)

As its name implies, the anti-inflammatory diet focuses on foods that help prevent and lower inflammation in the body. It’s generally a healthy eating plan for anyone of any age, but dietitians say for people with various chronic illnesses it’s frequently prescribed as a complementary medicine approach to help manage symptoms.

How does what I eat (or don’t eat) lower inflammation in my body?

Inflammation is the result of the body’s immune response kicking into gear to help your body heal and protect you from further injury (think swelling, pain, cough, fever). But if that immune response stays ramped up for too long or goes awry, it can cause a number of problems, like obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, inflammatory bowel diseases (like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis) and cancer.

The theory is that by avoiding certain inflammation-triggering foods (processed foods, high-sugar foods, fried foods, processed red meat and saturated fats) you lower the amount of chronic inflammation in the body and lower your risk of developing those problems or exacerbating any you already have.

The foods you’re allowed to eat on the diet — fruits, vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids (particularly those found in fish), nuts and olive oil— are foods we see over and over again in nutrition research as being associated with fewer health problems and generally longer, healthier living, explained Deirdre K. Tobias, ScD, associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

So, what does the research say about anti-inflammatory diets?

Studies suggest certain foods can have anti-inflammatory effects in the body.

Research suggests stabilizing insulin levels (meaning avoiding blood sugar spikes and crashes by limiting sugars and refined carbs) and consuming more omega-3 fatty acids (like those found in salmon and tuna) than omega-6 fatty acids (like those found in vegetable oils) helps lower chronic inflammation. Polyphenols (found in non-starchy vegetables) also help tamp down the inflammatory response. Antioxidants (found in fresh herbs, spices and some teas) have also been found to reduce inflammation.

And increasingly studies show that people who follow anti-inflammatory diets over time tend to do better when it comes to avoiding or managing chronic illness. Research suggests eating anti-inflammatory foods may help lower heart disease risk, better manage the symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis, and overall reduce early death.

While the data clearly shows there are health benefits associated with regularly choosing these foods, what’s less clear is how much these specific foods alone are what’s keeping chronic inflammation lower (and therefore keeping these health risks at bay), Tobias said. “Whether it’s one specific food or nutrient or really just eating healthfully overall that might lead to some beneficial effect in your weight, blood pressure and inflammation, is still unknown.”

But regardless of why it works, the diet is still a balanced and healthy one, she adds.

Who is the anti-inflammatory diet good for?

Everyone can benefit from eating the foods thought to be anti-inflammatory, said Amy Shapiro, RD, founder and director of Real Nutrition in New York City. But for people with certain autoimmune disorders where chronic inflammation can trigger flares or make symptoms worse (like in Crohn’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis and lupus), a lot of people find that adjusting their diet to include anti-inflammatory foods can help, she adds.

Other conditions an anti-inflammatory diet might lower risk of or help manage, include:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Asthma
  • Cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Chronic pain
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Stroke
  • Other inflammatory bowel diseases (like ulcerative colitis)

Your dietitian may recommend doing an elimination diet to get a more personalized prescription of the type of anti-inflammatory diet that works best for you, Shapiro said. Under the direction of a dietitian, you’ll eliminate lots of foods that might be triggering inflammation. Then gradually, one at a time, you’ll add foods back into your diet and observe if specific ones trigger the symptoms you’re trying to avoid, Shapiro explained.

Remember: If you want to try a dietary intervention to help with symptoms, it’s best to do it under the direction of a dietitian and other clinician. And such an approach should only be used alongside (not in place of) your regular treatment and care.

What will you eat on an anti-inflammatory diet?

On this diet, your plate will consist of:

  • cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage)
  • fruit
  • whole grains
  • fish
  • nuts
  • olive oil

Fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and phytochemicals, both types of micronutrients that help reduce inflammation. Other anti-inflammatory nutrients include omega-3 fatty acids (specifically the EPA and DHA varieties found in salmon, sardines and tuna), mono-unsaturated fats (found in olive oil), and herbs and spices (like ginger, turmeric and green tea). Those not eating animal products should note that the omega-3s found in plants is ALA, which is not known to have the same anti-inflammatory effects as those found in fish.

Foods known to increase inflammation that you’ll avoid (or limit) on an anti-inflammatory diet include:

  • overly processed foods
  • refined carbohydrates and sugar
  • red and processed meats (like salami, hot dogs, ham, and sausages)
  • trans fat
  • refined seed oils (like soybean, corn, sunflower, and others)
  • dairy (some is OK, but don’t overdo it; fermented dairy like yogurt and kefir is better)

Avoiding refined carbohydrates (like white bread, white rice, white flour and sugar) and instead choosing complex carbohydrates (like whole grains, potatoes and fruits) helps keep blood-sugar levels more stable, thereby also reducing inflammation. Foods high in fiber (like whole grains, legumes and non-starchy vegetables) have the same effect.

What a day on an anti-inflammatory diet might look like:

Here’s a sample menu of what a day of eating might look like, according to Shapiro:

  • Breakfast: Two eggs any style served over spinach sprinkled with sea salt and pepper
  • Lunch: Grain bowl (1/2 quinoa topped with roasted salmon, sliced avocado, purple cabbage and ginger dressing made from fresh ginger, carrots, avocado oil, tamari and garlic)
  • Snack: 1/4 cup sprouted almonds with 2 tablespoons sulfur-free raisins
  • Dinner: Tacos with grass-fed beef, black beans, brown rice, sliced avocado, fresh salsa in almond flour tortillas or taco shells

What is the deal with nightshades? Should I stop eating tomatoes and eggplant?

You may have read headlines about specific high-profile athletes and others who avoid nightshade vegetables (tomatoes, white potatoes, eggplant, bell peppers and spices that come from peppers, like cayenne and paprika) because they claim they trigger inflammation, too.

Here’s where the evidence is pretty thin. There’s not yet research to show that those vegetables trigger inflammation or increase risk of long-term health problems, Shapiro said. They do contain chemical compounds called alkaloids, which in high amounts can cause problems. But you’re simply not getting enough from those vegetables you might be eating to be concerned, she added. (On the other hand, those vegetables are known to contain essential nutrients like vitamin C and lycopene that you do need.)

Anecdotally some people say they feel better when they cut those vegetables out. But Tobias recommended consulting with a dietitian if you’re planning on doing so. “When you start eliminating whole groups of food, there can be micronutrient deficiencies that you’re not really making up elsewhere,” she said.

The anti-inflammatory diet is similar to:

  • Mediterranean diet, which focuses on whole foods and minimizes processed foods
  • The DASH diet, developed to help lower blood pressure
  • Vegan diet, which focuses on whole plant-based foods, but excludes animal products
  • The MIND diet, which also limits sugary foods and red meat
  • Low-FODMAP diet, which also utilizes an elimination method to pinpoint problem foods

Bottom line

The anti-inflammatory diet is overall a healthy and flexible approach to eating for most people. (And there’s some — though not 100 percent — overlap with components of a lot of other very healthy diets, like the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet and vegan diets.) The science illustrating the mechanism behind why these specific foods and nutrients are linked to better long-term health, however, has a ways to go. But regardless of why it works, the eating philosophy is a solid one for most people to adopt.