What is an anti-inflammatory diet and its benefits for heart health

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Anti-Inflammatory diet

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  • The anti-inflammatory diet is much like the Mediterranean diet, emphasizing whole, unprocessed foods.
  • Research shows that the anti-inflammatory diet can help improve your health and lower the risk of heart disease.
  • Though there are no strict guidelines, the anti-inflammatory diet promotes eating nutrient-rich foods like salmon, berries, and nuts.
  • This article was reviewed by Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, nutrition and wellness expert with a private practice based in New York City.
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more.

Scientists have recently started to realize just how dangerous inflammation is, finding links to deadly diseases like certain cancers and Alzheimer's.

Doctors often treat chronic inflammation with medications such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen, steroids, and supplements like fish oil. But recent research shows that one of the best treatments for inflammation may be the food you eat.

The goal is to improve health, not to lose weight

"Inflammation is not always a bad thing; our bodies use inflammation as a signal for healing," says Dr. Mari Ricker, MD, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Arizona. This is what you see when an infected cut turns red and swells up.

However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it is linked to dangerous health conditions like certain cancers, heart disease, diabetes, and asthma. That's where an anti-inflammatory diet comes into play.

It's designed to reduce chronic inflammation in your body, a condition where your immune system stays constantly on high alert and ultimately may damage or impair normal tissues and cells. By calming the inflammation, you can mitigate this damage and reduce your risk of diseases.

 The food you eat can help fight inflammation

The anti-inflammatory diet is less like a diet with restrictive meal plans and more like a guide for eating nutrient-dense, unprocessed or minimally processed foods and a lot of vegetables, much like the Mediterranean diet or DASH diet, Ricker says.

You are also advised to eat foods with antioxidants like vitamin C in oranges and the lycopene in tomatoes.

You don't have to ban inflammatory foods like red meat outright but you should only eat them in small amounts. Below are some foods that may help reduce inflammation that are recommended for an anti-inflammatory diet.

  • Fatty fish like salmon, sardines, and mackerel: The omega-3 fatty acids in these foods have anti-inflammatory properties and are needed to balance out omega-6 fatty acids, which can cause inflammation.
  • Extra virgin olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil contains a special compound called oleocanthal which exhibits similar anti-inflammatory effects as ibuprofen.
  • Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peppers and fruits like kiwis and oranges that are rich in vitamin C: Multiple studies have found that vitamin C can reduce certain substances in the body that can cause inflammation including high-sensitivity C-reactive proteins and interleukin 6
  • Nuts: Researchers have found that nutrients in nuts, including omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants, and magnesium can help lower inflammation.
  • Berries — particularly blueberries, cranberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries: A 2015 review, published in the International Journal of Molecular Sciences, found that berries like strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries contain compounds that help prevent inflammation and heart disease, as well as lowering the risk of certain cancers risk.
  • Tomatoes: Researchers have found time and again that the lycopene in tomatoes is an effective anti-inflammatory that may help prevent cardiovascular disease. Though scientists are still trying to understand exactly how lycopene helps reduce inflammation. 

In addition to foods that help lower inflammation, an anti-inflammatory diet also focuses on limiting foods that contribute to body-wide inflammation. These foods include processed carbs, fatty cuts of red meat, fried foods, sugary drinks, and alcohol.  

Even healthy adults can benefit from the anti-inflammatory diet

An anti-inflammatory diet can decrease your heart disease risk whether you are overweight or not.

Ricker says that the diet is healthy and safe for most people to try. "There are very few people who cannot incorporate some aspect of the anti-inflammatory diet."

The anti-inflammatory diet is relatively easy to maintain and should be used throughout your life for best results, Ricker says. "To be successful in reducing inflammation this needs to be a lifestyle change. Changing the diet long term, not just for 3 to 6 months."

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