The Anti-Inflammatory Diet

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Highly processed foods filled with sugar, flour and complex carbohydrates may cause people to have inflammation throughout their bodies. This type of inflammation isn’t necessarily the kind that people think of, such as swelling of the skin from acne or a bug bite. Rather, this inflammation causes tissues throughout the body to remain in a constant state.

Medical science is beginning to show how foods can cause or reverse inflammation. These studies have started to proliferate into the way humans produce food. Consumers demand healthier and better foods, and producers are taking notice. That means that humans have more options than ever before with regards to organic and non-processed ingredients.

Fresh farmers market fruit and vegetable produce

What is inflammation?

People must understand what inflammation is and why runaway inflammation can be dangerous to someone’s health. Inflammation is a naturally occurring method that our bodies developed as a way to heal. Redness, swelling, and burning around an injury site (broken bone or cut), that is inflammation in action. The purpose is so that someone’s body can protect against infection and further injury by sending in white blood cells and other compounds to keep the whole system intact.

When inflammation happens naturally, it is a normal response to an injury. However, the problem comes when the human body performs this process on a regular basis, even when it’s not necessary. Arthritis, for example, is a form of inflammation that attacks someone’s joints and muscles in the fingers (read more about Rheumatoid Arthritis here.) They body thinks that they are damaged and starts to repair them, even though it doesn’t have to do so. As a result, human hands become inflamed and sensitive to pain, meaning that people use their hands less and less.

While arthritis is a common inflammatory issue, many other diseases can cause inflammation or even come from inflammation within the body. Many medical maladies occur because the body doesn’t know how else to act when it comes to activating the immune system in a response to a problem. If this happens too much, then people can develop a much higher risk for degenerative diseases, especially as someone ages.

Some common contributors to inflammation are:

  • Genetics
  • Stress
  • Bad Habits (such as smoking)
  • Diet

Overwhelmingly, though, dietary intake is what affects a person’s inflammation levels the most. Other factors like genetics can either make things better or worse, but diet is by far the driving process here. Thankfully, that also means diet can have a profound impact when an individual starts eating foods that reduce inflammation.


What Is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

According to nutrition specialist and integrative medicine expert Dr. Andrew Weil, a great way to get a body on the healthy train is to follow an anti-Inflammatory diet.

This is not a “diet” by any traditional means. When most people think about diets, they imagine something that they follow for a little while, lose some weight and then go back to the “normal” routine. However, that is what leads to so much failure in the long run, which is why people shouldn’t approach this as a temporary thing.

People should imagine an anti-inflammatory lifestyle, and then they start to understand why this program help patients live longer and stay healthier for many years rather than just lose weight. While weight loss is a natural side effect of this diet, people shouldn’t do this for just losing weight reason alone.

The purpose of the anti-inflammatory diet is to provide people with the tools they need to make smarter and better decisions about what they put into their bodies. Because inflammation is such a strong presence in someone’s body, it’s imperative that people limit how much inflammation they endure. Prolonged inflammation can lead to plenty of harmful and potentially life-threatening diseases. That’s why Dr. Weil created the anti-inflammatory diet.


The Basics

Because this is a new lifestyle, not a temporary meal plan, people don’t have to memorize a laundry list of foods that are “approved” or “not approved.” Instead, patients should go off of guidelines to adapt to fit their needs.


Merging of Traditional Diets

When coming up with the anti-inflammatory Diet, Dr. Weil drew inspiration from two primary sources: the Mediterranean diet and Japanese eating habits. Having studied these regions in-depth, he concluded that they were the healthiest diets in the world. These diets have tangible, provable results. People living in these areas who follow traditional eating methods are living longer, experiencing less disease and having much healthier lives overall.


Japanese Diet

  • High in fish
  • Low in sugar
  • High-quality vegetables
  • Steamed rice as a staple
  • Little red meat consumption
  • No bread
  • No dairy
  • Lots of green tea


Mediterranean Diet

  • High fish content
  • Low in sugar
  • High-quality fruits and vegetables
  • Whole grain pasta as a staple
  • Reduced red meat consumption
  • Whole grain bread in moderation
  • High-quality dairy foods
  • Fresh, organic oils

These two diets overlap in a lot of different ways, but the main takeaway here is that neither diet relies heavily on complex carbohydrates (like enriched flour), sugar or other highly processed foods. By avoiding meat and focusing on fish (omega-3 fatty acids), the people of these regions are able to prevent inflammation for most of their lives. Thus, when figuring out this diet plan, it was imperative that similar parameters were put into place.


Variety is the Spice of Life

The most important thing about this diet is that people get as much variety as possible with respect to different ingredients. Instead of sticking to the same shopping list, someone should get out and experience new foods that he or she wouldn’t otherwise try.


Taste the Rainbow

Another thing people should think about with this diet is the use of color when making dishes. There is such a wide range of colors out there that people can eat, from orange carrots and red cabbage to green broccoli and purple eggplant. As a result, people on the anti-inflammatory diet should incorporate as many different hues into their diet as possible. Each color has a particular set of protective qualities that can help people reduce inflammation and make their bodies healthier. Colors that everyone should incorporate every day include green (darker the better), blue, orange, purple, yellow, red and pink. Choosing a variety of colors every day ensures that people eat enough variety.

The reason colors are important are the chemicals that produce them. For example, lycopene is a micronutrient found in tomatoes that gives the tomatoes their red color. Lycopene is a power antioxidant that may help prevent heart disease and breast cancer while protecting the skin against the effects of aging.


Balanced Nutrition

One of the biggest things people must consider is the sources of their calories. For the most part, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s dietary guidelines focused heavily on grains and carbohydrates as primary sources of calories.

Instead, according to Dr. Weil, people should get around 40 percent of calories from whole grains (not enriched flour), about 30 percent from fat (unsaturated) and the rest from protein. To maximize the potential of this diet, people should incorporate all three ingredients into every meal in these quantities to ensure a balanced diet overall.


What to Eat

There are some general guidelines of what people should look for when grocery shopping. It’s imperative that people train their minds to spot these kinds of foods when shopping, because there are times where patients may eat at a restaurant or deli. When eating out, people should pay attention to foods to pick the best options for the anti-inflammatory diet.

  • Whole Grain Pasta
  • Nuts and Nut Butter
  • Fish (Sockeye Salmon)
  • Alternative Protein (tofu)
  • Dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa at least)
  • Fresh Fruit
  • Organic Vegetables
  • Mushrooms
  • Green tea


With regards to things like pasta, the trick is for people to prepare it the old-fashioned way. Instead of boiling it to be as soft as possible, people following the anti-inflammatory diet should make it “al dente.” This means pasta is a bit chewy. In fact, most Italians eat pasta al dente, and Americans may think the pasta is undercooked when it really isn’t. Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet prescribes that people eat pasta in moderation because it is not as healthy as whole, unprocessed grains.

Fish is usually an excellent source of omega-3 fatty acid, which is a fundamental component in fighting inflammation. Not all fish are the same, especially if they are farmed under artificial growing conditions. Sockeye salmon is a prime ingredient of the anti-inflammatory diet because it can’t be farmed due to its diet of algae and insects. This salmon also has a much higher omega-3 fatty acid content than most other species of salmon.


Green Tea

A significant part of the Japanese diet includes green tea. Most meals in Japan have at least one or two cups of green tea, which has shown to be a major source of anti-inflammatory properties. The tea is so beneficial that if people add it to their normal diet and change nothing else, they still see tangible benefits by reducing inflammation.


Organic Foods

Thanks to consumer demand and growing questions about genetically modified foods and pesticide use,  there has been a push to make more foods certified as organic. When it comes to fruits and vegetables on the anti-inflammatory diet, people should try to buy organic as much as possible. Even if something isn’t organic, that’s still okay. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the key, although organic foods are better due to the lack of pesticides.

Patients should consider shopping at farmer’s markets as a fantastic way to get better fruits and vegetables. Shopping at a farmer’s market helps the local local economy by supporting farmers in a particular geographic area. Prices stay lower because people buy items that are in season and foods weren’t shipped from faraway regions to land on people’s plates. Read more about organic foods here.


Dietary Supplements

For the most part, taking a daily multivitamin or multimineral supplement is a great way to fill in the gaps between the foods people eat. The anti-inflammatory diet allows for supplements, but people shouldn’t rely too heavily on supplements because they are no substitute for the real thing. Instead of taking a gel cap for omega-3 fatty acids in fish oil, people should try to eat more salmon.

Taking a multivitamin is a good habit, especially on days where patients aren’t able to eat as well as they would like. When it comes to multivitamins, consumers must pay attention to the label. Dietary supplements and vitamins are not regulated by the FDA, so shoppers shouldn’t assume that they get everything that it says on the bottle. Everyone should do some research on the company making the product to ensure that they get the proper stuff.


What NOT to Eat

While it can be easy to gravitate towards the foods that are best for consumers, it’s also imperative that people understand what to avoid at all costs. Many of these foods can be difficult to quit cold turkey because they are so ingrained into American’s eating habits. Cutting these foods out can produce some immediate benefits even if people don’t start on the anti-inflammatory diet right away.

  • Enriched (white) Flour
  • Sugar, Refined or Otherwise
  • Highly Processed Foods
  • Machine Manufactured Foods
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup
  • Foods with High Glycemic Load
  • Excessive Amounts of Coffee
  • Low-Quality Dairy


Whole Grains Versus Enriched Grains

When trying to figure out what carbohydrates are the best, consumers should go with darker, more tactile ingredients over the refined “white bread.” Enriched flour is a huge problem in this country, and it finds its way into many common foods without even being advertised or noticed. The goal of the anti-inflammatory diet is to get as many whole ingredients into someone’s diet as possible. That means no ingredients processed or altered by man or machine. The more natural the diet is, the better off people are in the long run.


High-Fructose Corn Syrup

Is this ingredient inherently evil? Well, the jury is still out on that one. Some studies have linked high-fructose corn syrup to increased obesity, while others say that it’s no better or worse than sugar. The anti-inflammatory diet shuns high-fructose corn syrup and white sugar. HFCS is a marker of low-quality ingredients in general, meaning that if someone sees it on a label, chances are the rest of the ingredient list won’t be very substantial.


What is Glycemic Load?

The glycemic load is defined by how a person’s blood sugar level (glucose) rises after eating a particular food. Thus, foods that are high in GL forces someone’s body to raise its insulin levels. Higher insulin levels over long periods of time could lead to metabolic diseases such as diabetes.  Having a low glycemic load means that someone’s body won’t have a spike of insulin or blood glucose after eating, and someone may notice fewer “food comas” after a meal. The reason that people feel sluggish after a meal is that the body is trying to recover from the intense blood sugar rush that the food created.


Benefits of Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Overall, when looking at this eating plan, people start to see plenty of tangible benefits. Weight loss is a natural result of following this program, but consumers also notice a reduction in bad cholesterol, blood sugar and fatigue. The other primary reason to follow this diet is to reduce the chances of developing severe disease down the road, such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease and even cancer. Fresh, whole foods will help someone’s body stay healthier for longer periods of time, which means people could enter into old age with the same vigor as they had when they were teenagers.


Anti-Inflammatory Pyramid

To help people out even further, Dr. Weil created his own version of the food pyramid. This summarizes the anti-inflammatory diet in a handy graphic to see how much of each type of food people should eat. The pyramid shows amounts and types of food to eat every day of the week and throughout the week.  One thing people should remember is that this anti-inflammatory diet is a lifestyle change to start and stick with as opposed to a temporary diet.


Make an appointment at our convenient Nashville Functional & Integrative health office to discuss your options.


Weil, Andrew, M.D. “Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Diet.” Accessed May 27, 2017.


Weil. “Lycopene.” Accessed May 27, 2017.


Weil. “Choosing Foods by Color.” Accessed May 27, 2017.

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