The Science Behind the Benefits of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

salmon, strawberry, tomato

Photo Illustration by Amelia Manley for Verywell Health; Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Chronic inflammation is associated with an increased risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.
  • Foods that are rich in antioxidants or omega-3 fatty acids are thought to be anti-inflammatory.
  • Proponents of the anti-inflammatory diet suggest reducing foods that encourage inflammation, such as red meat and high-fat dairy products.

What if you can fight inflammation by adjusting your diet? An anti-inflammatory diet might help reduce the risk of chronic inflammation-related diseases, such as heart disease, arthritis, and diabetes.

Acute inflammation happens when the immune system kicks in after the body suffers from a wound or viral infection, and it might trigger pain and swelling for a few days until everything is healed. But chronic inflammation builds over the years and it's not always easy to identify.

Frank Hu, PhD, MD, a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that long-term exposure to air pollution, obesity, a sedentary lifestyle, and an unhealthy eating pattern can all contribute to chronic inflammation.

“It's like a smoldering of the arteries instead of a big fire,” Hu told Verywell.

In a 2020 study co-authored by Hu, researchers found that pro-inflammatory diets were associated with a higher risk of heart disease.

Eating more anti-inflammatory foods, like dark leafy greens and salmon, while limiting pro-inflammatory foods, like red meat and fried foods, may contribute to a lower risk of developing chronic disease.

How to Follow an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Unlike the DASH diet or other structured eating patterns, the anti-inflammatory diet doesn't come with a set of rules to follow.

Anti-inflammatory foods include dark leafy greens, tomatoes, olive oil, berries, whole grains, nut, salmon, and other fatty fish. Pro-inflammatory foods include organ meats, red meat, refined carbohydrates like white bread and pastries, fried foods, and soft drinks.

"The foods that we choose to eat can actually help quiet that inflammation or fan the flames," Melissa Ann Prest, DCN, RDN, CSR, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics based in Chicago, Illinois, told Verywell.

Prest said that an anti-inflammatory diet would involve more plant-based proteins, like tofu and legumes, more often than animal proteins. And red meat would be a "treat" to enjoy just a few times a month, she added.

Coffee and a moderate amount of red wine are also thought to be anti-inflammatory because they contain polyphenols, a group of antioxidant compounds that protect the body from free radicals. Polyphenols are found in many of the other plant-based foods in the anti-inflammatory eating pattern.

Hu said that scientists don't fully understand the biological mechanisms of the anti-inflammatory diet at this point. However, existing evidence suggests that polyphenols can reduce oxidative stress, which is believed to damage cells, proteins, and lipids, hence contributing to inflammation.

An anti-inflammatory diet might also work by improving insulin sensitivity or promoting a healthy gut microbiome, Hu added.

"We don't have the complete picture yet about the wide range of metabolic pathways through which healthy foods can reduce inflammation," he said. "It's like a big jigsaw puzzle and we only have some of the pieces."

Diet Alone Doesn't Solve Everything

In order to get the most out of an anti-inflammatory diet, experts say to incorporate certain lifestyle practices as well.

"There is no super anti-inflammatory food or nutrient that you can just take and then you don't have to worry about everything else in the diet. It has to be a holistic approach rather than a magic bullet approach," Hu said.

Good sleep hygiene, reducing stress, maintaining a healthy body weight, not smoking, and getting at least 20 minutes of moderate exercise every day can all help reduce chronic inflammation.

Experts say the anti-inflammatory eating pattern should not be considered a cure for chronic illnesses or autoimmune diseases like type 1 diabetes or arthritis.

"Sometimes you just have chronic illnesses that may or may not be related to what you're eating," Prest said. However, she said that eating more plant-based, anti-inflammatory foods can calm some of the inflammation and symptoms for people with certain autoimmune diseases.

"When they're adopting a lower inflammatory diet, it might not completely get rid of it, but it'll definitely help to manage it," Prest said.

What This Means For You

Nutrition experts recommend eating more anti-inflammatory foods and limiting pro-inflammatory foods in order to reduce the risk of chronic disease. However, the anti-inflammatory diet alone isn't going to prevent illnesses—you should still incorporate other lifestyle practices like getting regular exercise and consistent sleep.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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