In the world of wellness, inflammation has become the ultimate supervillain. Anything that promotes inflammation is immediately thought to be bad, while anything that fights it is good. There are well over a thousand anti-inflammatory diet cookbooks on Amazon and several thousand more anti-inflammatory supplements, teas, and even creams. There’s sound reasoning behind some of these products, but not all inflammation is bad. It’s necessary, actually. And while a healthy diet is one thing that can help minimize the harmful type of inflammation, the idea that certain foods are anti-inflammatory is flawed.
What Is Inflammation, Anyway?
Inflammation is the immune system’s response to any traumatic event that happens in the body’s tissues. Blood (carrying immune cells) and intracellular fluid (carrying plasma proteins) flow to the affected area, which can lead to redness, extra warmth, and swelling. Sometimes this process stimulates nerves and can cause soreness and pain. All of this is part of the healing process, with varying degrees and duration of inflammation based on the stimulus.
“Acute inflammation is a protective response of the body’s defense system to fight pathogens, remove damaged tissue, and aid in healing. This type of inflammation starts quickly and lasts for a short time, typically one to a couple days,” says Dayong Wu, associate lab director of the Nutritional Immunology Laboratory at Tufts University. This response is key to nearly every reparative process, including recovering after a workout, fighting off illness, and healing wounds.
While acute inflammation helps resolve problems in our bodies, chronic inflammation can cause them. Unlike localized acute inflammation, chronic inflammation can affect entire body systems, like your lungs, skin, or joints. The symptoms tend to be milder but longer lasting. Inflammatory byproducts like cytokines, reactive proteins released by the immune system, get cleared up quickly in acute inflammation but can build up during chronic inflammation and eventually cause harm, since they disrupt the normal function of your blood and immune cells.
“Chronic inflammation is increasingly recognized to be a risk factor for many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes, autoimmune disease, neurodegenerative diseases, depression, and even some cancers,” Wu says. It’s also the root cause of chronic inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and Crohn’s disease, in which the immune system mistakes normal cells for harmful ones and needlessly attacks them.
Can You Eat Your Way Out of Inflammation?
A person’s overall diet pattern can impact levels of chronic inflammation, but there’s no agreed-upon anti-inflammatory diet out there. If you look through a few anti-inflammatory cookbooks or guidelines, you’ll notice some common themes. A diet high in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats might help protect your body against inflammation—along with a host of other health issues.
Preliminary research suggests that processed foods like refined carbs, sugary soda, trans fats, and deli meats might promote chronic inflammation, says Wu. (Heavy alcohol consumption, too.) Wu also notes that excess calorie intake might lead to inflammation, even if you’re sticking to these recommended foods. Calorie needs vary based on age, gender, genetics, and activity level, but you can get a rough estimate for how much you should eat to maintain your body weight here.
On the other hand, whole, plant-based foods and fatty fish are thought to help reduce chronic inflammation. Research suggests that phytochemicals in plant-based foods reduce the number of cytokines in our blood, which indicates less inflammation overall. There’s also evidence suggesting that certain unsaturated fats have a similar effect.
Still, you should take this all with a grain of salt. “Although many studies have reported that diet and certain foods and food components are associated with reduced levels of inflammation markers, a majority of that evidence is generated in animal studies,” Wu says. More clinical trials are needed before we can say whether specific foods or diet patterns have the same effect in humans.
No Superfood Will Save You
If someone is trying to sell you on the anti-inflammatory properties of a certain food or supplement, you should be skeptical. “Currently, there’s no list of magic foods or magic diets that are clearly supported by solid scientific evidence,” Wu says. The jury’s still out on whether any specific foods or compounds are particularly helpful.
There’s also no conclusive evidence that supplements can reduce inflammation, Wu says. Even if a plant extract or a pill contains high amounts of certain vitamins and minerals that are thought to help, it’s not guaranteed that all of these micronutrients are available for our bodies to use. Plus, too high a dose of certain micronutrients might actually cause harm over time. And while trendy superfoods like pomegranate, turmeric, ginseng, or acai are typically healthy, it’s impossible to say for sure that they’re any better at curbing inflammation than any other whole, plant-based foods.
It’s also important to note that food isn’t the only factor when it comes to chronic inflammation. Stress is certainly a factor: a 2012 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that chronic stress weakens the body’s ability to regulate inflammatory response, increasing the likelihood of chronic inflammation and the buildup of harmful inflammatory byproducts. Wu also cites chronic disease, aging, smoking, and pollution as other significant risk factors, although there isn’t conclusive research that quantifies their impact.
If you want to minimize chronic inflammation, seek out stress-reducing activities, avoid smoking, and minimize your exposure to air pollution if possible. When it comes to diet, Wu recommends eating something similar to the popular Mediterranean diet: lots of fruits, veggies, and whole grains, plus fatty fish, other healthy fats, herbs, and spices. Most importantly, the best anti-inflammatory diet is one that emphasizes whole foods but doesn’t place anything totally off-limits, since restrictive diets might cause stress—and lead to more chronic inflammation.