What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAInflammation is a hot topic, which makes sense: it even sounds hot.   These days, it’s blamed for every medical problem under the sun, from obesity to Type 2 diabetes to cancer to arthritis to headaches.  The do-it-yourself solution?  An anti-inflammatory diet.  But what exactly is an anti-inflammatory diet?

The first problem with defining an anti-inflammatory diet is huge: there is no official definition of the generalized inflammation everyone talks about.  If you have a head cold, your throat might be sore and inflamed, as your immune system fights off the infection.  If you’re injured — say a cut or a fracture — the site of the injury may become inflamed: swollen, warm to the touch, red in color.  It’s a temporary and localized reaction, mediated by the immune system, and a necessary part of the healing process.  These type of acute reactions are not the target of so-called anti-inflammatory diets.

That target is chronic inflammation.  What exactly is that?  It’s interesting to note that an internet search of “chronic inflammation definition” turns up plenty of links to consumer-type websites (HuffPo, Ehow, Wikis, livestrong, a few online dictionaries, etc), but no links to reliable science research sites like NIH, NLM or CDC.  There’s no diagnosis code for “chronic inflammation”  in the ICD-9.  Conclusion: the definition of generalized chronic inflammation is up for grabs.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t exist.  Just that it’s not well defined.  And lacking a definition, we also lack reliable tests.  There are lab tests for specific medical conditions that have an inflammatory component (such as arthritis).   C-reactive protein (CRP) is sometimes used as an indicator of inflammation somewhere in the body, but is not known to be a reliable indicator of generalized chronic inflammation.

Despite the lack of definition, symptoms and tests for chronic inflammation, anti-inflammatory diets are popular.  Since there’s no official definition, the diets can be whatever the diet author wants.  Without tests or symptoms, it’s hard to say whether the diets reduce generalized inflammation or not.  Some people try these diets to treat specific inflammatory conditions, such as arthritis, with mixed results.

Even though there isn’t a standard “anti-inflammatory diet”, most of them include similar types of Health Halo foods.  For example, the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA are metabolized into specific immune modulators.  No surprise: most anti-inflammatory diets recommend fatty fish, like salmon or sardines, because of the high omega-3 content.  Other recommended foods include

  • anti-oxidant rich fresh fruits, especially berries
  • certain dark colored vegetables
  • nuts (also a source of omega-3 fatty acids)
  • certain herbs and spices
  • even red wine and dark chocolate (for the phenols, which supposedly have anti-inflammatory effects).

Most of these diets also have a list of foods to avoid: processed foods, added sugars, trans fats and refined carbohydrates.

What could be wrong with any of this?  Nothing.  In fact, most so-called “anti-inflammatory” diets end up looking like a sensible, plant-based, high fiber diet.  The type of diet recommended by most medical and nutrition experts for weight management and disease prevention.  Boring.  Anti-inflammatory” sounds so much more exciting.  Who wouldn’t want to fight inflammation?

The Take Away Message

There is no official anti-inflammatory diet standard.  If you buy an anti-inflammatory diet book, you may or may not be getting good advice.  Fortunately most of these diets turn out to be healthy, plant-based diets, focused on unprocessed foods with healthy fats and little added sugar or sodium.  It sounds a lot like the Mediterranean Diet.  If the diet happens to reduce chronic inflammation, so much the better.

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