What does the evidence say about anti-inflammatory diets?

An anti-inflammatory diet is rich in foods containing health-promoting antioxidants, polyphenols, and other immune-boosting compounds that have the potential to fight inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to injury and infection. However, experts link persistent and chronic inflammation to insulin resistance and an increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and many other chronic conditions.

Foods with anti-inflammatory properties include, but are not limited to:

  • herbs and spices, such as turmeric, cinnamon, ginger, garlic, pepper, and rosemary
  • fruit, including pineapple, papaya, mango, berries, and acerola cherry
  • vegetables, such as carrots, pumpkin, green leafy vegetables, and zucchini
  • peas and beans, such as pinto beans, chickpeas, lentils, and black-eyed peas
  • oily fish and other omega-3 sources, including sardines, salmon, mackerel, herring, and fish oil
  • dairy, such as yogurt
  • whole grains, such as corn, cornmeal, and whole grain pasta, bread, and rice

How does an anti-inflammatory diet work?

According to research, several foods cause inflammation in the body, including highly refined carbohydrates and added sugars, red meat, trans and saturated fats, and salt.

Although there is no well-defined anti-inflammatory diet, there are broad recommendations for foods to get more of and those to get less of to treat inflammation in the body.

Furthermore, studies show that diets not designed as anti-inflammatory have inflammation-lowering benefits, and health experts recommend them for general good health.

For instance, the Mediterranean diet and the dietary approaches to stop hypertension diet — designed to reduce the risk of heart disease and blood pressure, respectively — are effective anti-inflammatory diets.

The goal of an anti-inflammatory diet is to eliminate pro-inflammatory foods and replace them with nutritionally adequate foods and herbs and spices that are high in anti-inflammation compounds, such as vitamin C.

For instance, avoiding refined flour, excess salt from precooked foods, and sugary beverages and increasing one’s daily intake of fruit, vegetables, and whole grains are among common recommendations.

Anti-inflammatory diets also support gut health. As many as 70–80% of immune cells are present in the gut, so optimizing gut health is integral to promoting immune health and eliminating chronic inflammation.

It is advisable to consume foods rich in prebiotics and probiotics, such as legumes and yogurt, every day.

Tips for getting started on an anti-inflammatory diet include the following:

  • Replace sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sodas and concentrated juices, with plain or fruit-infused water.
  • Increase your fiber intake by eating more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables daily.
  • Eat fatty fish, including sardines and salmon, twice per week.
  • Include into your diet more nuts, seeds, nut butter, avocado, and olive oil for healthy fats.
  • Incorporate more herbs and spices.
  • Sip on herbal teas, such as ginger, garlic, cinnamon, or rosemary tea.

Potential health benefits

Lower disease risk

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic conditions, such as heart disease and stroke, are the leading cause of death and disability in the United States.

Research demonstrates that anti-inflammatory diets reduce markers of inflammation in the body and the risk of chronic conditions.

A 2016 review found that the Mediterranean diet reduced C-reactive protein — a test that indicates inflammation in the body — by 20%, and overall heart disease risk by 30%.

Researchers suggest that the diet reduces heart disease risk by lowering inflammation in blood vessel walls and maintaining their health and resilience.

Adherence to the Mediterranean diet also has the potential to reduce the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, although more studies are necessary to explore this benefit.

Less severe symptoms

Symptoms of chronic conditions, such as muscle pain, swollen joints, itchy skin, tiredness, and mood swings, may become debilitating or disruptive, affecting a person’s quality of life and comfort.

Research into the effects of an anti-inflammatory diet in individuals with psoriasis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and depression found improvement of some symptoms and quality of life in some instances.

This means that for someone with a chronic condition, an anti-inflammatory diet may support improved symptom management and a better quality of life.

In addition, other research notes that anti-inflammatory diets may reduce fatigue brought on by a chronic condition.

However, instead of focusing on a single nutrient, people should follow a balanced diet rich in fiber, whole grains, fruit, vegetables, and omega-3 fats to manage fatigue.

Downsides

Inconsistent findings

Anti-inflammatory diets are an emerging science with conflicting findings.

According to some research, tomato is a pro-inflammatory food that people should avoid and replace with other vegetables, such as pumpkin. Still other findings suggest that its lycopene content has anti-inflammatory properties.

These inconsistencies between published data may leave you feeling confused about which foods are right for you. Be mindful of your allergies and consult with a registered dietitian to develop an appropriate meal plan.

Cannot cure diseases

Several health-related websites offer the “best” anti-inflammatory diets to “cure” conditions such as fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, and arthritis.

While anti-inflammatory diets are effective at reducing inflammation and improving symptoms, saying that they are a cure for autoimmune and chronic conditions is an overstatement.

A person should adopt an anti-inflammatory diet to support appropriate medical treatment, not to replace it.




Lifestyle habits

Lifestyle habits also play a role in the development of inflammation.

Research associates poor sleep, lack of physical activity, and psychological stress with increased inflammation, weakened immunity, and an increased risk of heart disease.

In addition to fueling your diet with anti-inflammatory foods, support lower levels of inflammation by:

  • aiming for 7–9 hours of uninterrupted sleep
  • exercising for 150 minutes per week, including cardio, resistance, and balance training
  • trying to manage stress

The bottom line

Anti-inflammatory diets are rich in health-promoting antioxidants, polyphenols, and other immune-boosting compounds that lower inflammation in the body.

Replace pro-inflammatory foods — such as highly refined carbohydrates and added sugars, red meat, trans and saturated fats, and salt — with whole grains, fruit, vegetables, yogurt, herbs and spices, and healthy fats.

Although anti-inflammatory diets effectively reduce inflammation and improve disease symptoms, they are not a cure for autoimmune and chronic conditions and should be an addition to appropriate medical treatment, not a replacement.





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