Ali Webster, PhD, RD, associate director of nutrition communications at the International Food Information Council Foundation, described it as a kind of diet that focuses on foods high in nutrients — especially antioxidants —that have been tied with “lowering the markers of inflammation in our bodies.”
“Its key players are foods like fruits, vegetables, legumes, healthy fats — like those that come from olive oil and avocado — fish, nuts, and dark chocolate,” Webster told Healthline. “Red wine is sometimes considered to be a component of an anti-inflammatory diet, though it should be consumed in moderation.”
If you’re thinking that sounds a lot like the popular Mediterranean diet, you’re right.
Webster explained that an anti-inflammatory diet is basically an “on-trend term that describes established recommendations for eating healthy.”
Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, a senior dietitian at UCLA Medical Center, added that anything that’s “nutrient dense” with “a lot of vitamins and minerals and color, from a natural source” would be an ideal component of this diet.
However, an anti-inflammatory diet isn’t just about what you eat, but what you don’t eat.
Webster stressed that foods high in salt, saturated fat, sugar, and refined carbohydrates should be limited or avoided.
She said that when these kinds of foods are consumed in excess they’re linked to higher markers for inflammation — which is tied to almost every kind of chronic disease — and presents a greater risk for cancer and diabetes.
“Inflammation is a complicated process that even the most knowledgeable scientists don’t completely understand,” Webster said. “But there is some research to support that eating recommended amounts of foods like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains can reduce risk for chronic diseases that have an inflammatory component, such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some types of cancer.”
So, what makes these foods so inherently healthy?
“Primarily, it’s the antioxidants. Omega-3 fatty acids are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, but it’s better… in whole form than in a supplement. Fruits and vegetables are packaged nuggets of antioxidants and anti-inflammatories,” Hunnes told Healthline. “Our ancestors ate a primarily plant-based diet that was completely unprocessed, [and] that’s what, evolutionarily, we are supposed to be eating for good health.”
Often, studies like this can cause the average consumer’s head to spin.
There seems to regularly be a steady stream of research pointing to some new food to avoid and diet to adopt.
Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian at Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, told Healthline that unhealthy options at the grocery store are “truly just one small piece of the why-we-eat-the-way-we-do puzzle.”
“Sticking with fresh options will always minimize consumption of processed foods. You also can try to avoid frozen meals and pizzas, snack-type items, and quick cook items,” Kirkpatrick said. “Keep in mind, however, that things like sugar, or even some red meat options can contribute to inflammation when eaten in excess, so even when you avoid processed foods, that may not be enough to truly fit into an anti-inflammatory diet.”
Webster added that cost can sometimes be a problem.
She noted that it’s tough to ignore that many of the recommended foods on an anti-inflammatory diet are often more expensive than less-healthy options.
“It’s disappointing to see that an apple can cost more than a box of cookies, and that olive oil, nuts, and fish can take up a significant part of a grocery budget,” she said. “But there are strategies you can use to eat well without emptying your bank account, including buying frozen fruits and vegetables, which are just as high in nutrients as fresh versions, focusing on plant-based proteins like beans, lentils, and soy protein, buying foods in bulk, and keeping an eye on how much you’re getting takeout or eating at restaurants.
However, Hunnes stressed that the long-term benefits of switching to an anti-inflammatory diet far outweigh the immediate costs.
“Investing in your own health is a big thing,” she said. “While there may be some up-front costs of switching to this type of diet, which really everyone would benefit from, the amount it would save in healthcare costs and productivity is really worth it.”
The long-term benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet far outweigh the immediate costs. Getty Images
Webster acknowledged that big dietary shifts can be challenging in ways many people don’t think about, but they can also be mentally and physically rewarding.
“After you’ve given your body and mind some time to adapt, adjust your schedule to make time to cook and prepare food and find ways to make your grocery budget work for you,” she advised.
Kirkpatrick pointed out that people should also be aware of how certain foods will mix with any medications they’re taking before making a major dietary shift.
“People on certain blood thinners need to monitor their vitamin K intake. Vitamin K is high in many vegetables,” she explained. “Other than these outliers, there really is little risk to improving the diet to include more healthy fats, color, and whole grains.”
Hunnes added that the only potential negative she could think of would be temporary constipation or gas as your body gets accustomed to eating “the high-fiber foods that we should all be eating.”
Extreme dietary shifts can be intimidating for many people. Webster suggests easing into these changes as the best approach for long-term success.
For example, start with small changes such as having a salad three or four days a week instead of eating out for your lunch breaks, or commit to having fish for dinner twice a week.
“Setting small goals to gradually adjust the way you eat can ease the transition and establish healthy habits that stick,” she said.