It may come as a surprise to learn that most people have some level of inflammation in their bodies, regardless of age or the presence of chronic health conditions. Symptoms like allergies, unexplained weight gain, joint pain, and fatigue can all be signs of inflammation. While managing stress and getting enough sleep can help alleviate these symptoms, nutrition is still one of the most important ways to combat inflammation. Here, we’ll explore the principles of the anti-inflammatory diet and how to apply them to your day-to-day diet.
What is inflammation?
Not all inflammation is “bad.” In fact, some inflammation is good and can help us survive serious injury. Inflammation is a natural immune system response designed to keep the body healthy. There are two types of inflammation (chronic and acute) and the focus of the anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce chronic inflammation.
- Acute inflammation: the body's immediate, short-term response to injury or infection (redness, swelling, heat, pain). Its purpose is to eliminate the cause of cell injury and initiate tissue repair.
- Chronic inflammation: an ongoing, long-term immune response that can cause tissue damage and contribute to various chronic diseases such as arthritis, atherosclerosis, and inflammatory bowel diseases.
What is the anti-inflammatory diet?
The anti-inflammatory diet is a way of eating that focuses on consuming foods known to reduce chronic inflammation in the body. It is not a single, strict diet plan but rather a style of eating that emphasizes certain food groups while minimizing others.
"To decrease and prevent inflammation, opt for foods that are whole and unprocessed. Avoid added sugars and stick to fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices."
Anti-inflammatory foods to eat more of:
- Leafy greens (kale, arugula, spinach, swiss chard)
- Cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage)
- Berries (blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries)
- Fatty fish (salmon, sardines, mackerel, anchovies) and monounsaturated fats 
- Nuts/seeds (chia seeds, flaxseeds, walnuts, pecans, pistachios)
- Herbs/spices (turmeric, ginger, cinnamon)
Research shows that certain components found in these foods can prevent/lessen the effect of inflammation on the body’s cells. Antioxidants, fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and polyphenols are some of the many anti-inflammatory nutrients that are packed into whole foods.
Pro-inflammatory foods to eat less of:
- Added sugars (sugary drinks, candy)
- Refined grains (white bread, white flour, processed baked goods like pastries)
- Saturated fats (steak, hamburger, butter, coconut oil)
- Processed meats (hot dogs, lunch meat, sausage, bacon)
- Sodium (fast food, chips, pizza, packaged foods)
Added sugars, refined grains, and saturated fats can contribute to insulin resistance and high blood sugar, a common trigger for chronic inflammation. Similarly, processed meats, alcohol, and sodium can raise blood pressure — another pro-inflammatory process.
How does the anti-inflammatory diet affect metabolic health?
Glucose levels and insulin resistance
Chronic inflammation is closely linked to insulin resistance, a condition where cells become less responsive to insulin, ultimately leading to elevated blood sugar levels [2, 3]. When the immune system is triggered by pro-inflammatory foods it releases inflammatory molecules. These molecules can impair the ability of insulin to unlock the cell for glucose to enter, leading to elevated blood sugar levels.
When inflammation decreases, insulin sensitivity tends to improve. This means that cells become more responsive to insulin, allowing for better regulation of blood glucose levels. Managing inflammation through lifestyle factors like a balanced diet, regular exercise, stress management, and adequate sleep can contribute to better insulin sensitivity, potentially lowering the risk of developing type 2 diabetes .
Chronic inflammation is associated with various factors that can contribute to weight gain and obesity. Insulin resistance is closely linked to weight gain as excess insulin can cause the body to store more fat . Inflammatory processes can also disrupt the normal regulation of appetite and metabolism, leading to increased food intake and decreased energy expenditure .
Leptin is a hormone produced by fat cells in the body whose primary role is to regulate appetite and energy balance. Research shows that chronic inflammation leads to leptin resistance (like insulin resistance, this means your body has higher levels of circulating leptin even though it may not be working properly). When leptin levels are high, it signals that the body has consumed enough energy, and food is more likely to be stored as fat. This slows down metabolism and interferes with the body's hunger regulation system, making it more difficult to control weight and worsening insulin resistance . By decreasing the amount of pro-inflammatory foods in your diet, your body can more easily regulate your weight.
Chronic inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract is associated with various digestive issues and conditions, such as inflammatory bowel diseases and irritable bowel syndrome.
The gut microbiome is still an ongoing area of research, however, research indicates that having a diverse and healthy population of bacteria in the gut can promote overall health . Inflammation can disturb the balance of the gut microbiota and cause something called dysbiosis — an overgrowth of harmful bacteria and a reduction in beneficial ones. Dysbiosis of the gut microbiome is related to issues with digestion including bloating, diarrhea, cramping, constipation, and poor nutrient absorption . Not only does an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy bacteria in the gut cause digestive issues, it can also contribute to weight gain, high blood sugar, and other chronic conditions .
A diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods, such as fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, omega-3 fatty acids, and probiotics, can contribute to a healthier gut environment.
Reducing inflammation in the gut may also positively influence the balance of gut microbiota, promoting a diverse and beneficial community of microorganisms that can improve nutrient absorption, immune function, and overall gastrointestinal well-being.
How to incorporate the anti-inflammatory diet into your routine
1. Follow the plate method
The plate method is a great tool for planning meals that allows flexibility while still ensuring variety and balance. At each meal, try to make half of your plate non-starchy vegetables, ¼ of your plate healthy proteins, and ¼ of your plate high-fiber carbohydrates. Following the guidelines of an anti-inflammatory diet, this could look like salmon, quinoa, Brussels sprouts, and a side salad with pecans and berries.
2. Make a smoothie
Experiment with your smoothies and try adding leafy greens, berries, and spices. Try freezing your solid ingredients in a container together ahead of time to make prep easier on a busy morning.
3. Snack on fruit and nuts
This combination is a balanced insulin-resistant friendly and anti-inflammatory snack full of healthy fats, fiber, protein, and complex carbohydrates. It is a quick and easy snack that requires minimal prep time.
- Choose more whole/unprocessed foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish, poultry, nuts, seeds, olive oil, herbs, and spices to help decrease chronic inflammation.
- Try to limit added sugars, refined grains, alcohol, sodium, and saturated fats to help prevent chronic inflammation.
- Following an anti-inflammatory diet can help promote insulin sensitivity, weight loss, and a healthy gut microbiome.
- To increase foods from the anti-inflammatory list, try following the plate method, making a smoothie, and snacking on fruits and nuts.
Leslie Johnson is a Registered Dietitian with her Master’s degree in Nutrition, Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change from the Friedman School at Tufts University and is currently working at Family Health Services as the Food Is Medicine Program Director and at Firelands Health as an outpatient dietitian in the Firelands Center for Coordinated Care. She is passionate about all people having access to fresh, nutritious food that can help keep their bodies healthy and works to incorporate nutrition science, communication, and food equity in her everyday practice. You can find more information on her website.