Inflammation in response to an injury is protective. The body sends blood to the site of injury, creating swelling that protects from further injury. In due course and with treatment, this swelling will subside as the injury heals, and the body goes back to functioning as normal. Chronic inflammation, however, has a much different effect on the body. With chronic inflammation, the body continues to react as if there is an injury present. When the body is taxed for one reason or another, cells send distress signals (and inflammatory response) until the cause is removed. If the cause is not removed (i.e., injury healed) then cells continue to alert the immune system that there is trouble.
With chronic inflammation, your body never gets a chance to rest and re-set. The immune system is constantly on guard, fighting, and the consequences of this can be dire.
Some of these consequences include:
- Autoimmune disorders like lupus and rheumatoid arthritis
- Cardiovascular disease
- Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders
- Age-related illness
- Chronic pain
The good news is that inflammation and its damage is largely reversible with some simple changes. An anti-inflammatory diet is a way to combat the consequences of inflammation in the body.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet follows some simple principles:
- Eat a variety of fruits and vegetables
- Minimize “bad” fats (saturated and trans fats)
- Include omega-3 fatty acids
- Sharply decrease or eliminate refined flours and sugars
- Increase consumption of whole grains
- Avoid processed foods
- Add spice to combat inflammation
This diet is very similar to a Mediterranean diet that features plenty of olive oil, wild-caught seafood, and very few refined sugars and flours. Dr. Andrew Weil is one of the modern-day proponents of the anti-inflammatory diet. In the early 1970s, Dr. Weil wrote a book called The Natural Mind. This book began his life-long exploration into integrated medicine and natural ways of helping the body to heal itself.
Today, Dr. Weil is director of the Center for Integrative Medicine of the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona. His focus is on holistic care for not only optimal health but also to treat disease. To that end, Dr. Weil created an anti-inflammatory diet food pyramid. This food pyramid is similar to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) food pyramid (replaced with a plate in 2011) but with some very fundamental differences.
Whole fruit vs. fruit juice
The USDA’s MyPlate graphic does not distinguish between half a cup of fruit and half a cup of fruit juice, but there are important differences. A whole piece of fruit is digested much more slowly and contains dietary fiber. In Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory diet, whole fruits and vegetables make up the majority of a daily ration at three to four servings per day for fruit and four to five a day for vegetables.
Whole grains vs. refined grains
The USDA plate simply states that grains should be consumed but does not indicate that whole grains—like brown rice and whole wheat flour— are infinitely better for the body than refined grains such as white rice and highly processed white flour.
Full fat vs. low fat
The anti-inflammatory diet pyramid follows new research that indicates that full-fat dairy products are not a threat to heart health and convey unique benefits, while the USDA plate continues to recommend low- or no-fat dairy products.
The anti-inflammatory pyramid and you
So what’s unique about Dr. Weil’s anti-inflammatory pyramid, and how can you incorporate it into your life?
The anti-inflammatory pyramid is filled with “dos” not “don’ts.” The emphasis is on fresh, delicious whole foods that can even include a glass or two of red wine and “healthy sweets” like dark chocolate.
A day following the anti-inflammatory food pyramid might look something like this:
- A bowl of steel-cut oats with chopped almonds and berries
- Green tea or black coffee
- Whole apple or an orange
- Hard-boiled egg or full-fat yogurt
- Handful of berries or carrots
- Leafy green salad with poached wild salmon in a spicy dressing with ginger and turmeric
- Green tea or water
- Whole piece of fruit
- Dark chocolate covered almonds or walnuts
- Green tea or water
- Whole grain pasta with grilled chicken and red sauce
- Spinach salad with pomegranate, walnuts, and feta
- Fresh fruit crumble made with whole wheat flour
There are plenty of other options for each meal. The anti-inflammatory diet offers the following guidelines in terms of amounts of each food:
- Carbohydrates: 40-50% of daily diet
- Fat: 30%, but only healthy fats
- Protein: 20-30% daily (low-mercury fish and grass-fed, organic meats only)
Making a dramatic dietary change such as this may be intimidating, but there are ways to slowly integrate these principles into your diet.
Switch to whole-grains
If you are not already eating whole-grain pastas and bread, this is the easiest place to start. It doesn’t require you to make any changes, really, except to look for a different type of pasta.
Increase fruit and vegetable intake
The anti-inflammatory diet has at the base of the pyramid a rainbow of fruits and vegetables. Start incorporating these into every meal. A piece of fruit in the morning, handful of carrots with lunch, a salad for dinner: these things add up.
Switch up the fat
The anti-inflammatory diet does not eliminate fat but changes the type of fat it recommends. People in the U.S. are chronically deficient in omega-3 fatty acids which protect the heart and aid metabolism. Switch to olive oil and add avocado to your salad or sandwich.
Minimize (with an eye to eliminating) processed foods and sugars
The one mainstay of many healthy diets, including the anti-inflammatory diet, is the need to eliminate sugar and processed foods. Sugar is highly inflammatory to the body and carries with it many properties of addiction. This last step may take some time, but try to incorporate more whole, fresh foods as you remove sugars and processed food from your diet. The health benefits of this last step will be worth the struggle.
As always, talk with your doctor before making any changes to your diet. If you are not ready to make the change completely, how can you incorporate some of the principles of the anti-inflammatory diet into your meals?