What is an Anti-Inflammatory Diet? [+Good & Bad Foods]

Everything You Need to Know About an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

If you have any experience dealing with inflammatory health conditions, chances are you’ve tried (or at least thought about trying) choosing to eat foods that help control inflammation. 

Simply put, an anti-inflammatory diet is a set of eating strategies that focuses on decreasing your body’s inflammation levels while avoiding any further triggers. An effective dietary approach to inflammation will likely include cutting out or cutting back on certain foods (like refined carbohydrates and processed sugars) while also eating more of other kinds of foods (like green leafy vegetables, olive oil and salmon). 

An anti-inflammatory diet may be advisable for controlling a variety of conditions. Inflammation is one of the body’s natural responses to stressors, by the way, so a little bit of it is healthy, and helps the body fight infections. It’s when inflammation occurs too often or at too high of a response level that it can irritate joints and tissues, often leading to chronic pain.

To get an edge over pain and inflammation, some specialists recommend food as a way to keep the body balanced. When it comes to anti-inflammatory eating, some people swear by it for helping everything from rheumatoid arthritis to depression. So what are the odds that this type of eating plan can actually work for you? And what do we know about the science behind it? 

Here are the questions we'll tackle about an anti-inflammatory diet:

  • What is an anti-inflammatory diet? 
  • What conditions does an anti-inflammatory diet help with? 
  • Which foods can help fight inflammation?
  • What foods can make inflammation worse? 
  • Should you try an anti-inflammatory eating plan?

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

For the most part, any healthy and successful eating plan involves two types of foods: the foods you avoid and the ones you add to your plate every day. The anti-inflammatory diet is no exception. 

A little more research could help us better understand exactly why and how this eating approach works to regulate chronic inflammation. What we do know is that anti-inflammatory foods seem to stabilize the blood sugar, reduce oxidative stress and improve digestion, all of which can reduce inflammation levels. 

An anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes eating whole, plant-based foods with loads of natural nutrients and fiber. When these types of foods make up the bulk of what you’re eating, they help stabilize your blood sugar (blood sugar is also called the glycemic index.) Stable blood sugar levels can have a cascading positive effect, improving a host of other health conditions such as diabetes and hypertension. 

Foods are frequently considered anti-inflammatory when they contain high amounts of antioxidants. Antioxidants can slow damage that happens to cells from stressors such as sun exposure, smoke and air pollution. 

Vitamin C, vitamin E, selenium, and beta-carotene are all considered antioxidants. What we know so far about antioxidants shows that the benefits of taking oral antioxidant supplements pale in comparison to the benefits of getting natural antioxidants from your food. 

Foods that are more natural and less processed also contribute to a healthier digestive ecosystem. The more raw, natural and unprocessed food is, the easier it generally is for your body to digest it and extract useful nutrients.

Plant-based, fiber-rich foods feed the healthy bacteria in your gut, but many processed, inflammation-spurring foods make gut bacteria work harder to help you digest, often causing gas, bloating and yet more inflammation. Healthy sources of fiber actually feed the bacteria that your digestive tract needs to absorb food and carry out waste. 

What conditions does an anti-inflammatory diet help with?

In theory, any condition triggered by chronic inflammation can be improved through an anti-inflammatory eating plan. In practice, some conditions respond better to dietary changes than others. 

Conditions that may benefit from this dietary approach include: 

  • Rheumatoid arthritis 
  • Eczema 
  • Pancreatitis 
  • Obesity
  • Gastritis
  • Irritable bowel disease (IBD) 
  • Diabetes 
  • Lupus 

What foods can help fight inflammation?

To fight inflammation, pick foods that are rich in fiber, healthy fats, and antioxidants. Go for brightly colored fruits and vegetables, and use spices to add flavor (eating healthy doesn’t mean having to accept bland, boring food!)

A list to get you started includes: 

  • Dark green, leafy vegetables (such as broccoli, spinach and kale)
  • Berries (especially blueberries, raspberries and strawberries) 
  • Salmon, mackerel and tuna 
  • Olives and olive oil 
  • Almonds, pistachios and pecans
  • Green tea 

What foods can make inflammation worse? 

As you add inflammation-fighting foods to your plate, it’s just as important to cut back on foods that could be triggering inflammation. You may choose to cut these foods out completely, or to gradually eat less of them over time. 

Foods that may trigger inflammation include: 

  • Cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup. A high sugar intake may contribute to unhealthy bacteria in your gut that may irritate your cells
  • Nightshade vegetables. Tomatoes, eggplants and white potatoes all belong to the nightshade family. Even though they are vegetables, they’re not recommended for inflammatory conditions. That’s because they contain solanine, a bitter-tasting chemical. 
  • Processed carbohydrates. This includes white bread as well as most muffins, cakes and pastries. Processed carbs may spike your blood sugar and set your body’s inflammatory response into action. 
  • Alcoholic drinks. The occasional glass of wine could be just fine and may actually help reduce oxidative stress in your body. But regularly consuming alcoholic beverages in large quantities can spike blood sugar and damage your liver and kidneys. 
  • Fried foods. Frying modifies the chemical makeup of food. Your body digests fried food differently, and triggers inflammation as it digests. People who consume fried food regularly have been found to be at higher risk for cardiovascular conditions and cancer. 
  • Vegetable oil, palm oil and sunflower oil. These cooking oils don’t add much nutritional value to what you eat, and may in fact irritate tissues in the body. 

Should you try an anti-inflammatory eating plan?

If you’re considering an anti-inflammatory diet, you should probably talk to your doctor first. 

Is an anti-inflammatory diet as effective as prescription drugs? We’re not sure — some research has attempted to find conclusive evidence about antioxidant supplements that could help answer that question. Though the results haven’t always been definitive, it still appears as though an anti-inflammatory way of eating acts in your favor, especially if you’re getting your antioxidants through fruits and vegetables. 

Nutrition is complex, so you may not have the exact same outcomes as others who are also following an anti-inflammatory eating plan. That said, adding fruits and vegetables, replacing heavily salted food with spices instead and choosing whole grains and healthy fats when possible is an excellent way to fuel your body. 

If you do choose to change the way you eat, remember that you don’t have to change everything all at once. Try small changes a little at a time at first. It takes a while to get comfortable with new foods, find new recipes and give your taste buds time to adjust. Food is definitely an important part of enjoying life, so set yourself up for success by finding a combination of healthy foods that work for you.

There’s a lot more information about anti-inflammatory eating plans online. You may want to search for meal plan guides that work for you. You may also want to keep a meal tracker or journal so you can determine what foods seem to help you and which ones seem to make you feel worse. If you’re stumped for where to start, try following the basic Mediterranean diet

How can Clearing help with chronic pain management? 

If you’re considering switching to an anti-inflammatory diet and would like extra support with managing chronic pain, consider Clearing’s customized, specialist-driven approach. Clearing offers a package individualized to fit you, which could include nutraceuticals (nutritional supplements), compounded topical creams, personalized exercises, 1:1 health coaching, a CBD cream and access to chronic pain specialists. 

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.