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“Diet” is a tricky word that often carries a negative connotation. Usually when we think of a diet we imagine the act of leaving out foods to attain a certain goal, such as weight loss. But when we think of diet in a limiting manner, we lose out on the possibility and variety of healthy, wholesome foods that can be included in daily food choices to boost health and reduce inflammation.
In this article, we’ll discuss how some inflammation is actually good for you, and then provide a printable list of anti-inflammatory foods and describe 4 different diets from around the world that all have an anti-inflammatory basis. By the end, you’ll be inspired to incorporate the range of flavors and foods into your own eating habits and see how your body responds to these life-giving foods in a positive, healing way.
Is All Inflammation Bad for You?
Inflammation is a normal and healthy immune system response that allows your body to repair itself after a cut, a cold, or any other “threat” is perceived by your immune system. You need your immune system to kick into gear and cause this acute inflammation to heal the wounds that are part of being alive. And if everything is functioning normally, inflammation should gradually diminish as your body falls back into a state of homeostasis, or equilibrium. (Source)
Having excess, chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is unsustainable for good health. Autoimmune diseases that attack healthy cells, exposure to environmental toxins, heavy substance use (such as smoking or excessive alcohol consumption), or a high-stress, low-activity lifestyle paired with a diet of highly processed foods may allow inflammation to take hold and damage your body. (Source, Source)
So some inflammation is necessary, and fortunately there’s a lot we can do to limit the unnecessary inflammation that comes from lifestyle choices. But with autoimmune diseases, chronic inflammation is typical and manifests as different symptoms, such as swelling of the joints and glands, skin issues (think psoriasis — a chronic inflammatory skin disease that’s mediated by the immune system), digestive problems, and fatigue. (Source)
That’s where nutrition comes in: The foods you eat can have a major effect on your immune system and ensure there’s less inflammation and more healing. Because your immune system contains cells that consume lots of energy, where (as in, what foods) your cells are getting that energy from matters, and can either inhibit or promote inflammation. Your body and immune system are literally built from the foods you consume. (Source)
And when the foods you consume are colorful, full of texture, fiber, and micronutrients, there are some pretty awesome benefits that come along with making such holistic diet choices.
The Incredible Health Benefits of Anti-inflammatory Foods
A little inspiration never hurts when you’re considering making a healthy lifestyle change. Here are some benefits you may experience from consuming a wide variety of nutrient-dense, anti-inflammatory foods:
lowered risk of developing chronic diseases, such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, and arthritis
cells are protected from damage via antioxidants
less bloating, healthier gut bacteria balance, and improved overall GI tract symptoms
decreased swelling and joint pain, which may lead to more energy
What exactly do you need to eat to reap these incredible benefits? No single food can provide you with all the nutrients your body needs, so finding places in your diet to incorporate a range of food types that each fill a unique niche, such as healthy fats, polyphenols, antioxidants, and fermented foods has great potential to provide your body with what it needs for a well-functioning immune system. (Source)
The Mediterranean diet, the autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet, and some common drinks that you may already regularly consume provide you with plenty of science-backed options to add into your eating plan — let’s dive into each of these 3 categories.
The Mediterranean Diet
The first results to populate from an “anti-inflammatory foods” search will probably mention something about the Mediterranean diet because of its anti-inflammatory, heart-healthy properties. It’s a traditional way of eating in countries such as Greece and Italy. The main foods included in the Mediterranean diet are:
extra virgin olive oil as the main source of fat
fruits and vegetables
nuts and seeds
herbs and spices (such as oregano, cumin, and thyme, all of which contain anti-inflammatory compounds)
Seafood and other animal products and byproducts are eaten in moderation, but very little red meat and sweets are ever consumed with the Mediterranean diet. Some studies have shown that this eating pattern can suppress inflammation and improve symptoms for people with rheumatoid arthritis. And if you have psoriasis, a Mediterranean diet may be able to slow down the progression of this skin disease, showing how food choices are a key consideration in your treatment plan. (Source, Source)
The Autoimmune Protocol Diet
The autoimmune protocol (AIP) diet is another anti-inflammatory way of eating that can treat autoimmune conditions. Unlike the Mediterranean diet, grains, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds, and some vegetables are removed during AIP’s initial elimination phase. These potentially problematic food groups are eliminated for a set amount of time before being slowly reintroduced after your immune system has had a chance to heal.
Foods that are included in the AIP diet are nutrient-dense and shouldn’t trigger your disease symptoms. Some of the whole-food highlights of this diet are:
colorful fruits and berries, especially polyphenol-rich blueberries, blackberries, and cherries
bone broth and organ meats, which are high in the amino acid glycine
fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kombucha, and dairy-free yogurt
cinnamon, turmeric, ginger, and many more flavorful herbs and spices
For a full breakdown of the best AIP foods that fight inflammation, be sure to check out WellTheory’s Ultimate AIP Food List. You’ll quickly become familiar with the AIP-approved foods that improve your autoimmunity and which ones to avoid.
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"My top three goals upon starting the program were to reduce inflammation, eat for healing, feel better. ... The WellTheory Coaching Team was able to help me work toward these goals by guiding me through the process of eliminating foods, providing education on why these foods are eliminated and putting lifestyle practices in place to help me succeed."
Anti-inflammatory properties and benefits aren’t limited to food — they’re also found in beverages. Coffee, tea, red wine, apple cider vinegar, and cocoa powder are packed full of antioxidant, polyphenol, and anti-inflammatory power. But depending on where you are with your healing journey, you may be taking a temporary hiatus from your morning brew and any alcoholic beverages (especially if you’re following the AIP diet). You can expand your anti-inflammatory beverage consumption by trying out some (or all 9!) of these WellTheory-recommended anti-inflammatory drinks to support your health that are also AIP friendly. (Source, Source, Source)
Unique Ways to Eat and Cook for Less Inflammation
The typical Western diet is characterized by refined sugars and grains, processed meats, sugary or artificially sweetened drinks, and few vegetables, fruits, whole grains, or healthy fats. But it’s not only these foods that contribute to chronic inflammation, it’s the way they’re cooked that has a more hidden, negative effect on inflammation levels. (Source, Source)
Muscle meats (muscle tissue from any species) cooked at high heat form toxic compounds that may increase cancer risk when consumed. Additionally, when muscle meats are grilled, the fat dripping onto the flames creates smoke containing harmful chemicals that can adhere to the meat’s surface. These chemicals are some of the same ones found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke. (Source)
If you don’t want these harmful substances on your plate and the potentially higher cancer risk that comes with them, there are ways to safely cook meat. Frequently flipping meat over, avoiding long cooking times at high heat or open flames, and removing charred portions can reduce your exposure to potential carcinogens. (Source)
Beyond elevating the Western diet in simple yet effective ways, there are other time-tested diets and ways of cooking that can bring the nutrition back into your kitchen. Let’s look at a couple of lesser-known anti-inflammatory diets and cooking practices from around the world.
The Nordic Diet
The Nordic diet, also called the Scandinavian diet, is a centuries-old way of eating that originates from the countries of Iceland, Denmark, and Norway. Traditionally, this diet consists of seasonally available berries, vegetables, seafood, and canola oil (when it’s cold-processed, unrefined, and not overheated or burned so that it retains its healthy fatty acids content), which all carry the anti-inflammatory benefits that we’ve discussed. With an emphasis on eating locally and seasonally, some of the specific foods in the Nordic diet are:
Depending on where you live, the fruits, veggies, proteins, and grains may look different from what’s grown in the Nordic countries. But with a focus on seasonality and sourcing from local growers, you can craft your own version of the inflammation-lowering Nordic diet by eating what’s freshly available.
Washoku: The Japanese Traditional Diet
Washoku goes beyond the foods you’re eating to capture a spirit of reverence for nature while using Earth’s resources sustainably and respectfully. This social practice is cultivated in the home, where skills such as preparing and seasoning food are passed down to younger generations. Japan has long been known for healthy diets and eating habits, which is one reason for Okinawa being coined a Blue Zone for the long lifespans of the island’s inhabitants. Some of the life-giving foods in the Japanese traditional diet include:
There are clearly many ways of eating that produce anti-inflammatory effects. What’s most important is that you find the foods that you enjoy and that make you feel good, as you continue to add to your repertoire and expand the anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.
Cooking With Water
In Washoku and other Asian diets, cooking with water is a main method for food preparation. Stewing, steaming, or boiling creates dishes that have high water content and low fat content because no oils or fats are used in this process. That doesn’t mean healthy fats shouldn’t be incorporated into your diet in a well-balanced way; Washoku simply emphasizes water-based cooking and gives you another option to explore as you find your ideal anti-inflammatory diet.
And don’t forget about microwaving, either! By activating the water molecules present in food, microwaving has a similar effect to other water-based cooking methods and acts as an alternative to using high heat on the grill or frying pan. (Source)
How might you change even a couple of meals a week to include a water-based cooking method? It could be an adjustment worth considering to make your foods, and the way you prepare them, as anti-inflammatory as possible.
Your Printable List of Anti-inflammatory Foods
Without further ado, here is your printable anti-inflammatory food list. Take it with you to the farmer’s market or grocery store, and share it with a friend to create a meal plan and accountability partner. You’ll see just how many ways you can easily incorporate more of these nutrient-rich foods onto your plate for better health, one bite at a time. Gather inspiration from cultures around the world to boost your diet’s diversity, because there’s truly no limit to eating in a delicious, anti-inflammatory, autoimmune healing way.
The Bottom Line on Anti-Inflammatory Foods
There are many diets that help with inflammation, which all include healthy fats, fresh fruits and vegetables, and spices that add interest and micronutrients. As you look to lessen the inflammation in your body and tend to your autoimmunity, find the foods on your printable list that make you feel good — the flavorful, wholesome, colorful ones that give you energy to live your best life.
And if you don’t quite know where to start, our Care Team at WellTheory is here to create a personalized care plan that puts you first as you discover an anti-inflammatory way of eating to heal your autoimmune symptoms. Your food choices have a huge impact on your wellness and can bring you short- and long-term benefits. Let’s eat — and eat well!