Last Updated on February 1, 2023 by Andre Panagos M.D.
What is an anti-inflammatory diet?
An anti-inflammatory diet promotes fresh fruits, leafy green vegetables, meat, and seafood with little or no intake of ultra-processed foods. Often referred to as the Mediterranean diet, the purpose of this style of eating is to eat highly nutritious foods. Healthy carbohydrates, proteins, and fats high in vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants support the growth and repair of your body. Not only that, but these foods also tend to be lower in calories than processed foods.
Doctors that emphasize different styles of anti-inflammatory diets
- T. Colin Campbell Ph.D.
- Dean Ornish M.D.
- Caldwell Esselstyn M.D.
- Joel Fuhrman M.D.
- Mark Hyman M.D.
- Loren Cordain Ph.D.
Why are anti-inflammatory foods so important?
Now more than ever, our society is plagued by a wide variety of chronic inflammation and chronic diseases. More than 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese (Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2020). And while it may not be accepted by mainstream society, your health and wellness are very much influenced by your diet. Scientific research and clinical experience have shown that dietary modifications and administration of nutrients and other natural substances effectively prevent and treat a wide range of symptoms and illnesses.
Over 70 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.Scientific Report of the 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, 2020
Higher crop yields equal fewer nutrients
Over the past several generations, a new standard diet of highly processed foods high in sugar and fat with little nutrients and fiber has become the norm. Modern farming techniques produce high crop yields per acre with fewer vitamins and micro-nutrients, so portion sizes and our bodies have increased. Many experts believe this is a significant cause of chronic disease and health problems. This can be found with simple blood tests demonstrating elevated inflammatory markers such as c-reactive protein (CRP), which reflects inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, cancer, and chronic pain.
Sugar is a problem
The average American consumes 44 teaspoons of sugar per day. Sugar is used to mask inferior ingredients in products and improve flavor. It has over 50 aliases, such as high-fructose corn syrup, dextrose, rice syrup, mannitol, and evaporated cane juice.
Sugar is one of the most dangerous and addictive substances in our diet. Research studies show sugar to be more addictive than alcohol, cocaine, and even heroin. Artificial sweeteners such as Aspartame (NutraSweet®) break down into neurotoxins. We know that excessive sugar consumption contributes to obesity and tooth decay, yet long-term exposure to moderate amounts can be just as damaging. Excessive sugar intake contributes to developing symptoms and diseases, including chronic inflammation, chronic pain, fatigue, anxiety, migraine headaches, high cholesterol, liver disease, osteoporosis, hypertension, diabetes mellitus, cancer, and heart disease.
The sugar researchers
- Cristin Kearns, D.D.S. The Former Dentist Uncovering Sugar’s Rotten Secrets
- Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns D.D.S. Big Sugar’s Sweet Little Lies
- Gary Taubes Is Sugar Toxic?
- Robert Lustig, M.D. Robert Lustig: the man who believes sugar is poison
What is wrong with bread?
Bread is an essential staple in most cuisines. Patients often tell us, “I love bread and can’t live without it.” Wheat has undergone a dramatic and drastic makeover in the past 50 years. Hybridization and genetic manipulation to increase yield have turned modern wheat into a distant relative of the ancient grains. The current strains of wheat are unable to survive in the wild. Many scientists believe that wheat can interfere with our immune systems.
The nutrient-rich germ and bran portions of wheat are removed during milling to increase shelf life. As a result, ingesting these grains impair your body’s ability to control blood sugar. Flour contains substantially lower amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fiber than in the past. Your body treats the small flour molecules like sugar with the same risk of developing the diseases mentioned earlier. This is in addition to gluten which people with celiac disease are allergic to.
Extruded grains such as breakfast cereal, as well as puffed wheat, puffed oats and puffed rice are processed using high heat and pressure which destroys most of the nutrition as well as the added synthetic nutrients.Fighting the Food Giants, biochemist Paul Stitt
Extruded grains such as breakfast cereal are processed using high heat and pressure, making them virtually indigestible. It is no wonder that breakfast cereals are fortified with vitamins and minerals.
Sprouted whole grains, however, unlock the essential vitamins and nutrients naturally present within the grain. Sprouting neutralizes phytic acid, which is known to block the absorption of nutrients by the intestinal tract.
The bread detective
Is milk part of the anti-inflammatory diet?
Cow’s milk is one of the most common food allergens in the American diet. Pasteurized and homogenized milk involves a great deal of processing, making it difficult to digest. Many low-fat and non-fat milk products are also difficult to digest. Research has demonstrated that milk does not offer calcium, proteins, and fats that cannot be found in healthier foods.
Contrary to popular belief:
- You can get more vitamin D from just a few minutes of direct sun exposure than from milk. Research suggests vitamin D is more important than calcium for bone health.
- Milk products have never been shown to reduce fracture risk.
- Milk may increase your risk of death due to the high quantity of natural sugar (lactose). (Michaëlsson K et. al 2014).
Long-term exposure to pro-inflammatory nutrient-deficient foods
The side effects of not following an anti-inflammatory diet are more profound than you can imagine. Foods that are unhealthy are subsidized by the government, making them affordable. Consuming these foods over decades speeds up the depletion of nutrients from your body and the aging process.
Unhealthy foods are more affordable because they are subsidized by the government
A new field of nutritional genomics is unlocking the secrets of the effects of food and nutrition on your DNA. Scientists study how food and nutrients change your DNA. If the cells do not work correctly, mitochondrial dysfunction begins sowing the seeds of cancer, inflammatory, and autoimmune diseases.
What are some easy things I can do to improve my diet?
You can create an anti-inflammatory diet by eliminating or significantly reducing your daily intake of sugar, flour, and dairy products. In its place increase your intake of whole foods such as fresh, local vegetables and healthy proteins every day. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food, believes you should eat local food closest to its natural state.
You should eat local food closest to its natural state.Michael Pollan
While changing to an anti-inflammatory diet is no easy task. You can see changes as early as two weeks or up to six months. Patients report improved sleep, greater energy and focus, improved vision, stronger hair and nails, and better-looking skin. Often people report discontinuing their blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, anti-depressant, and reflux medications. Once you start feeling great, it is tough to return to your old diet.
What to do NOW to create an anti-inflammatory diet
- Reducing your daily intake of sugar, flour, and dairy products.
- To get started with your new dietary habits, make sure you include proteins, healthy fats, vegetables, and fruits with each meal to feel satisfied.
- Avoid fried foods and saturated fats.
- Eat a colorful variety of local vegetables more often than fruits.
- Get to know the local farmer’s market vendors and buy foods that are in season to maximize their nutrient content.
- Cook your food, as restaurants focus on flavor, not health.
- Exclude or greatly minimize your consumption of prepared and processed foods from crinkly bags, boxes, and cans.
- Snack on raw or sprouted nuts, seeds, raw vegetables, or some fruit between meals if needed.
- Become an expert label reader and learn more about the scientific ingredients in food. Generally, if you cannot pronounce it, you should not eat it.
- Take time to chew and digest your food since poor digestion equals starvation.
- Limit water intake during meals to allow the acid in your stomach to digest protein.
- Walking while eating does not let your body properly metabolize the food.
- Sit down and take time to enjoy your food with family and friends.
Ideas for creating an anti-inflammatory diet
Vegetables and Fruit
Vegetables and fruits are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and phytonutrients such as carotenoids and flavonoids.
Eat abundant amounts of vegetables daily in all colors of the rainbow, emphasizing leafy greens.
Eat fruit daily but in moderation due to their natural sugar (fructose) content, in all colors of the rainbow.
Protein from grass-fed, hormone-free, antibiotic-free, and non-GMO sources is ideal.
Eat animal protein, including red meat such as beef, lamb, poultry, eggs, organ meats, and homemade gelatin-rich bone broth.
Eat fish and shellfish, but choose wisely, as our oceans are polluted. Small, wild fish such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerel are ideal. Be careful of farm-raised seafood.
Sprouted whole grains are a good source of vitamins and minerals.
Eat sprouted whole grains that have not been highly processed. These include quinoa, amaranth, flaxseed, bulgar, spelt, kamut, buckwheat, oats, farro, and brown rice. You can also use legumes such as soybean, beans, and lentils.
Dairy can be a rich source of nutrients.
Grass-fed butter, cheese, yogurt, and other whole milk products are very healthy.
Consider sheep or goat milk products over cow milk if available.
Remove or limit consumption of pasteurized, UHT, and homogenized milk in addition to skim, low-fat and non-fat milk.
No nutritional value
Reduce or eliminate intake of all sugar products, including cereal, granola and energy bars, fruit yogurt, and candy.
Avoid high-fructose corn syrup.
Remove artificial sweeteners, as they are more toxic than sugar.
Fats and oils
Good source of essential fatty acids
Extra virgin olive oil is safe to use in its natural state on salads or in low-heat applications.
Coconut oil is better suited for high-heat applications.
Remove all vegetable oils such as margarine, canola oil, and safflower oil as their production makes them pro-inflammatory.
Antioxidant herbs and spices
It is important to add herbs and spices such as parsley, oregano, turmeric, basil, cinnamon, cloves, cocoa, cumin, peppermint, thyme, sage, and rosemary. These are the highest sources of anti-oxidants available in your diet.
Essential for keeping hydrated, flushing out toxins from your body, and can be a source of antioxidants.
Replace regular and diet soda, fruit juices, and sugary iced tea with water, lemon water, or dilute tea.
Drink more tea (green tea) and less coffee, as it has lower levels of caffeine and is an excellent source of antioxidants.
Fantastic anti-inflammatory diet resources:
Michaëlsson K, Wolk A, Langenskiöld S, Basu S, Warensjö Lemming E, Melhus H, Byberg L. Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies. BMJ. 2014 Oct 28;349:g6015. Print.
Andre Panagos M.D.
Medical Director, Spine & Sports Medicine of New York