By Cathy Wong
Updated on April 18, 2022
Medically reviewed by Ashley Baumohl, MPH, RD
The anti-inflammatory diet is a dietary pattern that is thought to aid in reducing the risk of disease that's associated with chronic inflammation. The typical anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes fruits, vegetables, lean protein, nuts, seeds, and healthy fats.
This article explores what chronic inflammation is and how diet can potentially help reduce inflammatory markers. It also lists some of the foods to eat and avoid and offers tips on how to build a healthy anti-inflammatory diet plan.
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation is the body's normal response to infections, diseases, and injuries. In these situations, inflammation is part of the healing process, and it subsides as the acute medical problem resolves.
Chronic inflammation is inflammation that persists for a long period of time. It can cause changes at the site of the inflammation and elsewhere in the body that can lead to a host of health problems.
There are many reasons why a person may have chronic inflammation. One example is obesity, in which excess fat tissue contributes to hormonal and immune system changes that create inflammation that affects the entire body.2
Other causes of chronic inflammation include:
- Alcohol abuse
- Chronic infections, like HIV or hepatitis B
- Autoimmune diseases, like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- Ongoing exposure to toxic substances, such as industrial chemicals
- Chronic stress
Over time, chronic inflammation can increase the risk of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Though these diseases can occur without chronic inflammation, severe chronic inflammation can cause them to develop 10 or more years earlier than would generally be expected.
Benefits of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
Certain foods are known to contribute to inflammation in the body. One example is red meat, which contains a lot of saturated fat. Saturated fat is one of the substances, along with trans fat and refined sugar, that cause certain immune cells to release inflammatory proteins into the bloodstream.
Other foods do not trigger this effect and, in some cases, can reduce inflammation. This includes foods that are rich in substances called antioxidants. Antioxidants fight chemicals known as free radicals that cause long-term damage to cells and can increase inflammation,
According to a 2016 study in the journal Endocrine, an anti-inflammatory diet led to a 37% decrease in inflammatory substances, such as C-reactive protein, in people with type 2 diabetes after just one year.
Other studies exploring variations of the anti-inflammatory diet, such as vegetable-rich diets or seafood-rich diets, have shown similar benefits, particularly in people with heart disease.
Foods to Eat
Research suggests that people who eat a lot of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, and fish have a reduced risk for inflammation-related diseases. Substances found in certain foods, especially antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids, may also have anti-inflammatory effects.5
Foods high in antioxidants include:1
- Beans (such as red beans, pinto beans, and black beans)
- Berries (such as blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries)
- Dark chocolate (at least 70% cocoa)
- Dark green leafy vegetables (such as kale, spinach, and collard greens)
- Nuts (such as walnuts, almonds, pecans, and hazelnuts)
- Sweet potatoes
- Whole grains
Omega-3 fatty acids are "good fats" that may help protect against heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and other conditions.
- Foods high in omega-3 fatty acids include:
- Oily fish (such as salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines, and anchovies)
- Omega-3-fortified foods (including eggs and milk)
There is also evidence that certain herbs and spices, such as ginger, turmeric, and garlic, can help alleviate inflammation.