How the Anti-Inflammatory Diet Affects Chronic Disease Risk


How the Anti-Inflammatory Diet Affects Chronic Disease Risk


You’ve probably heard that an anti-inflammatory diet can help reduce the risk of diseases like heart disease, but what does the research actually say about how the anti-inflammatory diet affects chronic disease risk?


What causes inflammation in the body? Anti-inflammatory diet yogurt

Most of the time inflammation is a necessary part of healing and the body often needs an inflammatory response to help fight illness and provide protection from further damage. However persistent, continued inflammation has been associated with certain medical conditions such as metabolic syndrome, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. When looking at the research, findings are mixed when looking at how the anti-inflammatory diet affects chronic disease risk.


How does diet affect inflammation?
Emerging research suggests the relationship between inflammation and diet may depend on other factors such as obesity and related chronic diseases, and most findings linking increased inflammation to an increased risk of chronic disease are in patients who have already had a heart attack or stroke and thus already have consistently higher levels of inflammation. These studies also suggest that “pro-inflammatory” eating patterns increase the risk of chronic disease and death only in overweight or obese individuals with other metabolic issues (such as type 2 diabetes). Further, while myriad foods such as blueberries, yogurt, turmeric, ginger tea, certain vegetables, and fish are linked to reduced inflammation in a lab setting, data are scant to support these and other specific foods being “pro-inflammatory” or “anti-inflammatory” in humans.

What is the “Anti-inflammatory” Diet?

The anti-inflammatory diet boom stems largely from studies looking at the effect of drug therapies on markers for inflammation. For example, a 2017 study looked at how an anti-inflammatory drug therapy administered under the skin every 3 months affected the risk of heart attack, stroke and death from heart disease in participants with previous heart attack and a chronically high level of inflammation. Study authors found that the drug therapy led to a significantly lower rate of repeat cardiovascular events, which led them to suggest that lowering levels of inflammation through the diet can help reduce the risk for heart attack and stroke.

Research studying how food affects inflammation and risk for chronic disease in humans is largely based on the Dietary Inflammatory Index (DII), which assesses the effect of 45 different food parameters (such as caffeine, garlic and fiber) on indicators for inflammation.

Anti-inflammatory diet

While the DII is supposed to represent eating patterns, its premise is based on how specific foods and nutrients affect inflammation.  This is unrealistic since nutrients and foods are eaten together and not by themselves. Despite this, Dr. Weil created an anti-inflammatory food pyramid to help guide foods choices for people wanting to eat fewer “pro-inflammatory” and more “anti-inflammatory” foods. The anti-inflammatory food pyramid largely resembles the pillars of the Mediterranean diet, including an eating pattern based on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, fish and seafood, and beans and legumes. As a registered dietitian, this is something I can get behind!

So, if you want to follow an anti-inflammatory eating pattern, what does this look like?

If you want to eat fewer pro-inflammatory foods, then limit how much you eat of the following.

Pro-Inflammatory Foods

  • Refined carbohydrates such as white bread and pastries, and other foods made with refined flour
  • Fried foods Pro-inflammatory diet
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages such as soda and sweet tea (including drinks made with sugars such as agave and honey)
  • Red meat and processed meat
  • Foods with trans-fat such as margarine, flavored coffee creamer, and some baked foods and frozen pizzas

If you want to eat more anti-inflammatory foods, then try to eat more of the following.

Anti-inflammatory Foods

  • Seeds
  • Olives and avocadosAnti-inflammatory diet avocado
  • Raw and cooked vegetables
  • Fresh or frozen fruit
  • Cooked Shiitake, enokitake, maitake, and oyster mushrooms
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Fish and seafood like wild Alaskan salmon, herring, mackerel, tuna, and sardines
  • Whole grains such as oatmeal, brown rice, whole-wheat bread, and other unrefined grains
  • Beans and legumes like Anasazi, adzuki and black beans, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lentils
  • Herbs and spices such as garlic, turmeric and curry powder

It’s the overall eating pattern that matters
Anti-inflammatory diet olivesWhile research in humans is limited and inconclusive to determine how the anti-inflammatory diet affects chronic disease risk, the basis of anti-inflammatory eating is still grounded in healthy foods. If you’re looking for an eating plan that closely follows the tenets of anti-inflammatory eating, consider the Mediterranean diet and/or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating patter, which are both high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, fish, and healthy fats.


Share your favorite anti-inflammatory foods in the comments!