What Exactly is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Obviously, I’m all about an anti-inflammatory diet. I’ve been living this way ever since I saw Dr. Andrew Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet pyramid all those years ago.
So as a dietitian with over a decade of experience in anti-inflammatory nutrition, it’s ironic that I’ve never explicitly written a post on this blog about what an anti-inflammatory diet actually is. If you’ve already got your copy of my Eat More Plants Cookbook, you can read it there…but if you don’t, it’s time to get specific on how I create an anti-inflammatory eating plan.
First things first…What is Chronic Inflammation?
Since we are talking about anti-inflammatory nutrition, it can be easy to assume that all inflammation is bad. But that simply isn’t the case. Inflammation is a critical function of your immune system, designed to help protect you from disease and injury. When you cut yourself in the kitchen, inflammation goes to work, dilating blood vessels, speeding immune cells to the site of injury, engulfing any foreign microbes that may have been on your skin or the knife and healing the area. When the damage is fixed, inflammation shuts off – actually, the inflammatory cells literally die off. That’s inflammation in an acutesituation, when you want it on your side.
Chronic inflammation is a different pathway, governed by different immune cells. It represents a dysregulation between tolerance and action: too much action, not enough tolerance. It is caused by a myriad of inputs, such as chronic stress, poor diet, inactivity and even pollution. When chronic inflammation is firing, other normal metabolic functions don’t work as well as they should – and cellular damage occurs. This is when inflammation isn’t serving us, and unfortunately, chronic inflammation is implicated in many chronic conditions that are rampant in our society.
Conditions associated with Chronic Inflammation
- Cardio-metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease
- Arthritis and chronic pain conditions such as fibromyalgia
- Autoimmune disease such as lupus
- Digestive disease such as celiac disease, ulcerative colitis, irritable bowel syndrome
- Skin conditions such as acne, eczema and rosacea
Five Principals of an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
No battle is ever won or lost on a single meal. It’s SO important that you internalize that message…because anti-inflammatory eating isn’t about never having a piece of cake again. What’s most important is the overall pattern of how you eat. If 80% of the time you are eating in an anti-inflammatory pattern, you’ll do just fine.
When creating anti-inflammatory recipes like the ones on my site, and the ones in Eat More Plants Cookbook, I’m aiming for them to be 90-100% anti-inflammatory so they can support you on your path. How do I get there? I keep these five main principals in mind:
Maintaining blood sugar balance
Maintaining hormonal balance, and keeping inflammation at bay, means keeping your blood sugar curve moderate. Eating a diet high in refined flours and sugar keeps blood sugars – and insulin – spiking, which leads to an increase in inflammatory response. But it’s not about going low carb…just eating more whole food carbohydrates such as fruits, vegetables and intact grains and balancing them with proteins and healthy fats to elongate the blood sugar curb and keep insulin secretion moderate.
Being mindful of the types of fat you eat
An anti-inflammatory diet is not a high or low fat diet, but a ‘right fat’ diet. It favours monounsaturated and omega 3 fatty acids over saturates and omega 6 fats to promote anti-inflammatory pathways and minimize gut-associated inflammatory responses. So opt for extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil most often, eat more plant proteins and eat those omega 3-rich seeds like flax, chia and hemp!
Consuming more anti-inflammatory and antioxidant phytochemicals
Whole plant foods contain way more wisdom than anything we can make in a lab. Remember back when we first learned that antioxidants were good? And we started citing the ORAC value of everything…and how it fizzled out? Whole plant foods contain naturally occurring phytochemicals that have demonstrated anti-inflammatory and antioxidant abilities – but supplements of these same molecules are rarely as effective. Trust nature. Pile your plate with plants. No one food will help you with inflammation. It’s all about pattern over plate.
Nourishing the gut-immune axis
Your gut is a critical organ of immunity. And immunity = inflammation. So providing the nutrients your body needs to foster better immune and gut health is critical. Luckily, whole plant foods provide nutrients like protein, zinc, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C that both systems need to function well.
Feeding your gut bacteria well
Gut bacteria are potent moderators of the gut-immune axis. If you want to fight chronic inflammation, you need to address your gut bacteria. A good quality probiotic is often a helpful support…but really, you need to feed those bacteria what they want. And what they want is plants. Indigestible carbohydrates, like dietary fibre, in plants help feed beneficial bacteria so they can do their thing helping your immune system to restore balance between action and tolerance. Fibre is sexy, my friends, and a critical piece of the anti-inflammatory puzzle.
Foods to Avoid on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
I balk at so many voices who claim you need to do a restrictive elimination diet to fight inflammation. It’s overly simplistic at best – dangerous at worst. I aim to use the minimum intervention necessary to find healing…because food is a joy and restriction can suck the joy out of eating.
My first aim is always to get people to minimize the hyper-processed foods like sugary coffee drinks, snack foods and fast food and load up on whole plant foods. Remove the inflammatory pressures, pile on the anti-inflammatory foods. For some, that might be more than enough as the body is always moving towards healing. It just needs the right tools.
Whole foods are rarely the root cause of chronic inflammation; however, they may be making healing more challenging as inflammation and gut barrier dysfunction can lead to food reactivity. So any other food restriction, whether dairy, gluten or soy, needs to be tested and applied on an individual basis. And don’t even get me started on the so called ‘anti-nutrients’.
Foods to Consume on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet
I’m all about a positive, additive approach to nutrition. Because more is more fun than less. So let’s talk about what to eat.
Second? Try and make half your plate vegetables at every single meal. It’s a stretch goal…but one worth working towards for life.
Third? Try and get the biggest variety of plant foods you can. Some research suggests this is key to a healthy diverse gut flora. But eating this way will ensure that you aren’t lacking for some nutrient or phytochemical. So challenge yourself to buy 1-2 new or rarely eaten foods each week. Love chia? Try ground flax! Always eat cauliflower? Buy a celery root!
Eating this way is about abundance, so have fun and eat all the plants you can.
What is the Best Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Dr Andrew Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet Pyramid really forms the foundation of my work in anti-inflammatory nutrition – the research that has occurred since he first created it really doesn’t suggest it needs to change, in my opinion.
A classical anti-inflammatory diet is largely a pescatarian diet with very few servings of animal-derived foods daily. So, do you need to go vegetarian to fight inflammation? What about proponents of the paleo diet claiming it as an anti-inflammatory diet? Do you need to eat the fish?
Here, I am flexible. I think the only non-negotiable is eating lots of whole plant foods. If you eat fish, great. If you don’t (like me), you can get those omega 3s elsewhere. If grains seem to be bothering your gut right now, a more paleo-style approach can work…given that you keep animal proteins light and make plants the star of the show.
Honestly, the best nutrition advice is the one that is individualized to your unique needs. Because one person’s anti-inflammatory all star might be another’s inflammation stoker. If you’re feeling ready to take the next step, book in with one of our dietitians for a customized plan.