As the term “anti-inflammatory” continues trending in the health and wellness spheres, more products boasting anti-inflammatory benefits are popping up on the shelves of supermarkets and health food stores. Almost every healthy eating or wellness-related website has their own anti-inflammatory diet—us included—and there is certainly no shortage of anti-inflammatory diet cookbooks out there. But something many health authorities get wrong is that it’s not just about eating a few “superfoods” to fight inflammation—it’s about obtaining well-rounded nutrition in our everyday lives.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is your body’s way of signaling your immune system to heal and repair damaged tissue or to defend itself from harmful compounds, like bacteria and viruses. Blood and fluids carrying immune cells and plasma proteins to the endangered or injured area often cause the redness, warmth, or swelling we experience after exercise or when under the weather. But this is all part of the body’s natural healing process and isn’t always a bad thing.
There are two kinds of inflammation—acute and chronic. Acute inflammation can actually be healthy, as it temporarily occurs while recovering from a workout or an illness. Chronic inflammation is what you should watch out for.
The difference between acute and chronic inflammation is that acute inflammation is a problem-solving way to fight off unwanted compounds in the body, while chronic inflammation is a problem-causing, longer-lasting issue. Chronic inflammation affects entire systems within the body for a prolonged period of time, and is thought to be a risk factor for many common chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and even depression.
Can my diet actually reduce inflammation?
What you put in your body (and what you don’t) can affect your body’s inflammatory response. While there isn’t necessarily a “perfect” diet to fight inflammation, research points to the benefits of consuming whole, plant-based foods, and omega-3 fatty acids, while decreasing consumption of processed foods, sugar, and saturated fat.
The caveat here is, if a supplement, tea, or other “wellness product” claims it reduces inflammation, you might want to be skeptical of it’s so-called magic powers. The claims on most of these products are not backed by the FDA, and you should prioritize foods in their whole form over concentrated powder or extract forms.
What does an effective anti-inflammatory diet look like?
While there are contrasting beliefs in the health community, one thing we could all benefit from is consuming more fruits and veggies. While certain produce with “superfood” status like pomegranates and acai are more commonly known inflammation fighters, you don’t need to rush out to buy a $15 acai bowl or drink a half-gallon of pomegranate juice each day. Just eat the fruit and veggies you like, or whatever’s in season at your local farmers’ market.
Opting for more healthy fats, like omega 3’s in salmon and flaxseed, is also extremely beneficial and can boost anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. Seeking out gut-friendly foods like kefir and kimchi will also boost your gut health, which is a critical aspect of staving off chronic inflammation. Even swapping out white pasta for whole wheat can make a big impact, as one study found participants who switched from refined grains to whole grains significantly reduced inflammation, compared to their refined grain-eating counterparts.
Interested in healthy, anti-inflammatory recipes?
Which foods cause inflammation?
While you don’t need to worry so much about consuming a specific food to fight inflammation, there are a few you may want to avoid—or at least reduce your intake of. Ultra-processed foods—like deli meat and donuts—as well as other products loaded with refined sugar, sodium, refined carbs, and saturated fats are all linked to inflammation. Alcohol and sugary beverages should also be seen as an occasional treat if you’re trying to abide by an anti-inflammatory diet.
One study from the University of Bonn found the body treats fast food like a bacterial infection—instigating an inflammatory response—and consuming too much can lead to chronic inflammation. This study also found high-sugar and high-fat diets can cause permanent damage to your immune system, putting you at risk for diabetes and heart attacks down the road.
The bottom line
Simply emphasizing the consumption of more plant-based foods, like produce, whole grains, unsaturated fats, spices, herbs, and legumes, is a simple way to ensure you’re abiding by an anti-inflammatory diet. Don’t worry about whether or not to invest in turmeric capsules or expensive powders—eat real, whole foods, and you’ll be on your way to fighting off chronic inflammation.