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There is no shortage of diets parading around our body, food, and appearance-obsessed culture. One of these, the anti-inflammatory diet, is commonly referred to as it is not only used by those seeking to alter their body appearance but is recommended to alleviate symptoms from some medical disorders. This second aspect complicates the question of “is an anti-inflammatory diet healthy?”
What is Inflammation?
First, let’s identify what exactly it means to adhere to an “anti-inflammatory diet.”
As an article published by the Harvard School of Public Health, it is important to understand that inflammation within the body is not necessarily bad. The article specifies that inflammation is “a healthy response by our immune system. When a foreign invader enters the body such as bacteria, viruses, or allergens, or an injury occurs, our immune cells act quickly. We may sneeze or cough to rid the body of an offending agent. We may feel pain and swelling at the site of a cut or injury to signal us to be gentle with this delicate area. Blood flows in rapidly, which may produce warmth or redness. These are signs that our immune system is repairing damaged tissue or fighting invaders. As healing takes place, inflammation gradually subsides .”
Inflammation “becomes harmful when it is prolonged and begins to damage healthy cells, creating a pro-inflammatory state .” The same article published by Harvard states that “ genetic deviants (can) cause the body’s immune system to constantly attack cells. This sometimes occurs with autoimmune disorders like lupus, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, and Crohn’s disease .”
The article also notes that “lack of exercise, high stress, and calorie-rich diets can trigger chronic low levels of inflammation throughout the entire body, termed metaflammation. This type of low-grade inflammation does not usually produce noticeable symptoms, but, over time, metaflammation can pave the pathway for chronic conditions like cardiovascular disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers (e.g., breast, colon) .”
What Constitutes an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Anti-inflammatory diets encourage individuals to eat foods believed to interfere with the inflammation process. That said, it would be understandable if you felt confused as to what exactly this means because there is no “one” anti-inflammatory diet regimen.
Generally, diets touted as “anti-inflammatory,” “emphasize eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, unsaturated fats, minimally refined whole grains, tea, coffee, herbs, spices, and oily fish .” Some examples of this that you may be familiar with are the Mediterranean or DASH diets.
Unlike most popular diets, anti-inflammatory diets do not encourage fixation or rigidity with calories or portion sizes. It primarily recommends eating any amount and combination of what are viewed as anti-inflammatory foods on a daily basis.
Foods viewed as anti-inflammatory are those that “provide plant chemicals (phytochemicals), antioxidants, and fiber that prevent cellular stresses, inhibit inflammatory signals caused by the immune system, promote healthy gut microbiota, and slow down digestion to prevent surges in blood glucose .” Some examples of this include fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, high fiber foods, monounsaturated fats, tea, coffee, dark chocolate, spices such as turmeric and ginger, and moderate amounts of wine and/or beer .
The diet also focuses on lifestyle changes that are said to help reduce inflammation such as getting enough sleep, reducing stress, and exercising regularly.
Is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Effective?
The answer to this question predominantly depends on your goal.
If you are someone that struggles with inflammation or metaflammation, there is strong research to suggest that an anti-inflammatory diet can help improve health outcomes.
For example, one study found that “a Mediterranean diet with an emphasis on fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seafood, and olive oil significantly decreased several markers of inflammation compared with a low-fat diet .”
Additionally, have been shown in some studies to suppress pro-inflammatory cells and improve symptoms in patients with rheumatoid arthritis . A third anti-inflammatory diet that combines the DASH and Mediterranean diets, known as the MIND diet “was found to significantly reduce the incidence of Alzheimer’s disease, a chronic pro-inflammatory condition .”
Anti-Inflammatory Diets and Eating Disorders
These are only a few examples of how increasing ingestion of anti-inflammatory foods can improve certain medical conditions.
Even so, people engage in anti-inflammatory diets for reasons other than combatting physical illness. Many try this for the same reason they try other diets – to lose weight and/or alter their bodies.
Studies do indicate that engaging in anti-inflammatory diets is likely to manage obesity so, if that is what one is looking for, they might well reach that goal. Even so, it is likely that they will end up with more than they bargained for.
Regardless of how helpful an anti-inflammatory diet is in combating certain medical conditions, the truth is that if this is not your reasoning for engaging in it, you are opening the door to a problematic world of food rules.
Limiting what one perceives as “good” or “bad” based on its potential impact on inflammation undoubtedly leads to categorizing all foods as either “good” or “bad.” When one begins to view food from this rigid foundation, they are more likely to develop other limiting food rules that lead to disordered eating behavior.
If you are not engaging in an anti-inflammatory diet at the recommendation of a Registered Dietitian or Doctor for medical reasons, it is best that you avoid cutting out certain food types or groups and stick to intuitive eating, where you can engage in an all-foods-fit and health-at-every-size focused approach to eating that emphasizes the variety, choice, and enjoyment that should exist with food.
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Resources Unknown (2022). Diet review: anti-inflammatory diet. Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health. Retrieved from Diet Review: Anti-Inflammatory Diet | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.  Jovanovic, G. K. et al. (2020). Evaluating the effect of an energy-restricted anti-inflammatory diet on weight loss, body composition, cardiometabolic risk factors and immune system response in younger adults with obesity: Study protocol for a randomized controlled trial. European Journal of Integrative Medicine; 37.
Author: Margot Rittenhouse, MS, LPC, NCC
Page Last Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC @ May 24, 2022