17 May 2023 Article

Chronic inflammation can cause chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Chronic inflammation is often due to an incorrect diet. In this article we will look at what anti-inflammatory diets entail.

Inflammation is not necessarily bad

An anti-inflammatory diet is promoted as a remedy to overcome inflammation in the body. The common belief is that inflammation is always bad. While it causes side effects, inflammation is actually a healthy response from our immune system! When a foreign invader (such as bacteria, viruses or allergens) enters the body, or when you sustain an injury, our immune cells react. An inflammation ensues. Our body makes us sneeze or cough to rid itself of the invader. We feel pain and see a wound at the site of a cut. These are signs that our body is repairing damaged tissue or fighting off invaders. While our body is healing, the inflammation gradually subsides again.

Inflammation is bad when it becomes chronic

Inflammation is considered unhealthy when it persists and begins to damage healthy cells. A lack of exercise, high stress and high-calorie diets can cause inflammation throughout the body. This type of low-grade inflammation usually produces no noticeable symptoms, but over time it can pave the way for chronic conditions such as heart disease, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes, dementia, and probably some types of cancer.

A major cause of mild inflammation is the accumulation of fatty acids in adipose tissues (and other tissues), promoted by a high-fat or high-sugar diet. This can lead to fat tissue disturbing signals to immune cells that cause inflammation in organs such as the pancreas, for example. An inflamed pancreas can then lead to insulin resistance and diabetes. Therefore, the combination of having too much body fat and eating a diet high in saturated fat and refined sugars increases the risk of chronic conditions.

What is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

There is no one “approved” anti-inflammatory diet. But if you google it, you’ll find a number of diets (aka protocols or meal plans) promoted as the cure-all for inflammatory conditions. In general, the majority of these diets emphasize eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, tea, coffee, spices, and oily fish. The Mediterranean diet, DASH diet, and MIND diet are popular diet plans that are naturally high in anti-inflammatory foods.

An anti-inflammatory diet plan not only emphasizes foods and food groups, which could have a positive effect on inflammation, but also limits other foods that may actually contribute to chronic inflammation. Think fatty meats, refined sugary foods and drinks, and alcohol.

How does it work in practice?

An anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t suggest strict rules about calories or portion sizes (but if you’re overweight, it’s important that you lose weight). An anti-inflammatory diet presumes a variety of anti-inflammatory foods to eat daily. These foods contain plant chemicals (phytochemicals), antioxidants and fiber. All of these substances work together to prevent cellular stress, promote a healthy gut microbiota, prevent spikes in blood glucose and reduce inflammation.

Examples of anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients are:

  • Berries
  • Fruits
  • Leafy vegetables
  • Vegetables
  • Whole grains
  • Legumes
  • Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (avocado, olive oil, nuts, seeds)
  • Poly-unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish such as salmon, herring, sardines, mackerel or vegetable sources such as walnuts, flax seeds, chia seeds)
  • Olive oil
  • Tea
  • Coffee
  • Dark chocolate
  • Herbs and spices

Examples of foods you shouldn’t eat (preferably at all) are:

  • Sweetened drinks such as soft drinks and iced tea
  • Refined carbohydrate foods such as white bread, white pasta, white rice
  • All foods containing (a lot of) refined sugar, such as biscuits and cakes
  • Fried food
  • Fast food
  • Red meat
  • Processed high fat meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs
  • Full-fat dairy

Do you lose weight if you follow an anti-inflammatory diet?

Basically, an anti-inflammatory diet is well satiating due to the high amount of plant foods that are rich in fiber. So, persons who follow such a diet are hardly hungry. Is this diet suitable for weight loss? I think so because you won’t be consuming unhealthy high-calorie foods – butter and other fatty dairy products, confectionery, and fast food. All this food will make you gain weight. But as with all healthy diets, it will only work if it becomes a natural part of your life and not a temporary experiment.

The bottom line

There is no well-defined anti-inflammatory diet. In principle, an anti-inflammatory diet means a diet based on unprocessed plant foods, possibly supplemented with small amounts of oily fish. Unhealthy foods (sugar, fast food, red meat, dairy) are of course not recommended. An anti-inflammatory diet will help maintain a healthy weight and prevent chronic diseases. An anti-inflammatory diet is very similar to the Mediterranean diet but puts more emphasis on omega-3 fatty acids.