What Is the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

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The anti-inflammatory diet is based on a pretty sound and simple claim: Chronic inflammation leads to chronic disease, and reducing inflammation in the body can prevent disease as well as promote overall health.

An anti-inflammatory diet aims to promote optimal functioning of both brain and body. It’s possible that an anti-inflammatory diet can help prevent heart disease, many types of cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, allergies, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel disease (IBS), stroke, heart disease, gout, and arthritis.

What Experts Say

“The anti-inflammatory diet is well balanced, focusing on veggies, fruit, healthy fats, nuts, spices, and even red wine while limiting processed meats, added sugars, refined grains, and processed oils.” 

Kelly Plowe, MS, RD

Background

Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting itself against injury and disease. Acute inflammation is important and healthy—this is what happens when you scrape your knee or sprain an ankle. You’re probably familiar with the redness, swelling, and warmth that comes along with those minor injuries.

Chronic inflammation, however, is not good for the body. Chronic inflammation can lead to many different diseases, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Originally developed by Dr. Andrew Weil, the anti-inflammatory diet is not really a diet in the popular sense of the term. Rather, the anti-inflammatory diet is a recommendation for a long-term eating pattern to achieve and sustain a high level of health.

Along with reducing inflammation, the anti-inflammatory diet is designed so that people following the diet consume enough vitamins, minerals, fiber, essential fatty acids, and phytonutrients. It’s based loosely on the Mediterranean diet, with some purposeful additions, like herbal tea and dark chocolate.

Dr. Weil, a Harvard graduate, and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine developed and began promoting the diet as a practical eating guide that anyone can follow. The diet started to gain popularity in the mid-to-late 2010s and is still popular due to its ease of use and healthful guidelines.

The anti-inflammatory diet isn’t aimed at any specific group of people, but it can be particularly healthy for people with arthritis, allergies, digestive disorders, and other health complications that arise from chronic inflammation.

How It Works

Many slightly different versions of the anti-inflammatory diet exist, but the premise is always the same: Emphasize a high intake of vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, healthy oils, and fish.

What to Eat

Compliant Foods

  • Any and all vegetables, raw or cooked

  • Fruit, especially berries

  • Whole and cracked grains, including pasta

  • Beans and legumes

  • Healthy fats (extra virgin olive oil, nuts and seeds, avocados)

  • Fish and seafood

  • Whole soy foods (edamame, soymilk, tofu, tempeh)

  • High-quality cheeses and yogurt

  • Omega-3 enriched eggs

  • Skinless poultry and lean meats

  • Herbs, spices, and herbal teas

  • Red wine

  • Dark chocolate

Non-Compliant Foods

  • Safflower and sunflower oil, corn oil, mixed vegetable oils

  • Margarine, vegetable shortening, and any foods with those as ingredients

  • Fatty meats

  • High fructose corn syrup and sugar

  • Foods made with wheat or white flour and sugar

  • Packaged snack foods, such as chips and pretzels

  • Caffeine (in excess)

Compliant

Vegetables: It’s no secret that vegetables are a key part of a healthy diet. In fact, greens and veggies should make up the bulk of your food consumption on the anti-inflammatory diet. Dr. Weil recommends four to five servings a day at a minimum.

Fruits: You should aim for three to four servings of fruit each day. Fruit is an important source of vitamins and phytonutrients.

Grains: Whole or cracked grains are a great source of fiber and many vitamins. You should try to include grains at least three times per day on the anti-inflammatory diet.

Beans and Legumes: Eat beans or legumes at least once a day to add protein, fiber, and vitamins to your diet.

Healthy Fats: Sources of fat such as avocados, olive oil, nuts, and seeds are high in omega-3s, not to mention other vitamins and phytonutrients that may help reduce inflammation. Eat five to seven servings per day on the anti-inflammatory diet.

Fish and Seafood: Fish and seafood are good sources of omega-3 fatty acids and protein.

Soy: Whole soy foods, such as soymilk and tofu, will replace some animal protein in the anti-inflammatory diet. You should try to use soy foods for protein when you can.

Cheese and Yogurt: Eat high-quality cheese and yogurt once or twice a week as an additional source of protein and calcium.

Eggs: When you can, choose free-range, omega-3 enriched eggs. Eat eggs one to three times per week on the anti-inflammatory diet.

Skinless Poultry and Lean Meats: You can include lean sources of animal protein once or twice a week on the anti-inflammatory diet. Look for lean cuts like tenderloin for pork and breasts for chicken. If you eat ground meat, make sure it’s at least 90 percent lean.

Herbs, Spices, and Herbal Teas: Add more garlic, turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon to your food. Spices and herbs are full of healthful compounds and are shown to reduce inflammation. 

Red Wine and Dark Chocolate: Red wine is high in polyphenols, particularly resveratrol, which is full of antioxidants. Chocolate that is 70 percent cacao or more is a good source of a variety of antioxidants. Both of these items are acceptable in moderation with this diet.

Non-Compliant

Mixed Vegetable Oils: Mixed vegetable oils and some other oils, such as safflower, sunflower, and corn oils, are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. While we do need some omega-6s, consuming too many has been associated with inflammation due to their inhibitive interactions with omega-3s.

Margarine and Shortening: Margarine, shortening, and other foods made with partially hydrogenated oils are generally bad for your health. From an anti-inflammatory lense, these foods contain artificial trans fats, which have been shown to cause inflammation and increase disease risk.

Fatty Meats: Fatty meats and processed meats (like hotdogs and bologna) have been shown to contribute to inflammation. Try to avoid processed meats and stick to poultry or lean cuts of pork.

Sugar and High Fructose Corn Syrup: Both of these ingredients have been shown to increase inflammation on many occasions. Foods high in sugar and high fructose corn syrup include cookies, cakes, candy, and other desserts, as well as many less obvious foods. Be sure to check the ingredients label.

Wheat and White Flour: Even though wheat flour contains more of the grain than white flour, it has a similar glycemic index. Try to eat grains like rice, oats, and bulgar wheat, which are preferable to wheat flours.

Packaged Snack Foods: Your favorite chips aren’t on the anti-inflammatory list. Not only do packaged foods often have a high glycemic index, they often contain harmful ingredients like hydrogenated oils as well.

Caffeine: Caffeine in moderation is okay. Try to drink tea over coffee when possible, and steer clear of energy drinks.

Recommended Timing

The anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t prescribe a specific eating routine. Instead, it just recommends that you eat four to six times each day, and try to include carbohydrates, protein, and fat with every meal or snack.

For example, instead of just having a banana for breakfast, eat a banana and a couple of eggs or with yogurt. Instead of toast with butter, try toast with almond butter or another nut butter (to add protein).

Dr. Weil recommends the following macronutrient ratio: 40 to 50 percent from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat, and 20 to 30 percent from protein.

Resources and Tips

Dr. Weil’s Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid is a handy resource to turn to when you need to check how much of a food you should eat. Since this diet is so popular and easy to follow, there is essentially an endless number of anti-inflammatory recipes.

The easiest way to successfully follow the anti-inflammatory diet is to focus on whole, natural foods and avoid processed sugary ones. With this focus, you’ll naturally choose anti-inflammatory foods over inflammatory foods.

Modifications

Overall, the anti-inflammatory diet is extremely well-rounded and nutrient-dense. Most people won’t need to modify the diet in any way unless they are allergic to some of the emphasized foods.

If you’re sensitive to gluten or have Celiac disease, you won’t be able to consume the recommended amount of grains on the anti-inflammatory diet. If this is the case, try upping your intake of beans, legumes, and starchy vegetables like potatoes or in place of grains. This will ensure you still consume enough carbohydrates and fiber.

The anti-inflammatory diet also emphasizes healthy sources of fat, including fish, seafood, nuts, seeds, and high-quality cheese, all of which are common allergens. If you are allergic to one source or another, simply try eating more of another source. You can experiment until you find a ratio of healthy fat sources that works for you.

Allergies to dairy or eggs won’t cause you much trouble on the anti-inflammatory diet, as they aren’t particularly emphasized.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Reduces inflammation

  • Promotes healthy eating

  • Not restrictive

  • Abundance of recipes

Cons

  • Contains many allergens

  • Can be costly

  • May be complicated to follow

Pros

Reduces Inflammation: All of the foods on the anti-inflammatory diet have been shown to help with chronic inflammation and disease risk in some way. Each of the recommended food groups has a substance, such as resveratrol and antioxidants, that helps reduce inflammation.

Promotes Healthy Eating: Each food on the anti-inflammatory diet contains vitamins, minerals, and other essential nutrients. Overall, the diet promotes a good balance between carbohydrates, fats, and proteins and encourages you to include colorful produce, especially berries, tomatoes, orange and yellow fruits, cruciferous veggies, and dark leafy greens. 

Not Restrictive: The anti-inflammatory diet is very easy to follow. There are no strict meal plans, and you’re free to modify the diet to best suit your needs, as long as you stick to the anti-inflammatory food pyramid. You can be creative with meals on the anti-inflammatory diet because it includes so many food groups. Eating out and drinking alcohol are also permitted on the anti-inflammatory diet, which makes it much more conducive to the typical lifestyle.

The abundance of Recipes: Since the anti-inflammatory diet is so popular, thousands of compliant recipes already exist. There is no need to start from scratch!

Overall, the anti-inflammatory diet promotes a healthy eating pattern that will ensure you consume adequate levels of all of the macronutrients, micronutrients, fiber, and antioxidants.

Cons

Allergens: The anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes many foods that are common allergens. Those include nuts, seeds, fish and shellfish, and grains, which are all critical components of the anti-inflammatory diet. Some people with allergies or food sensitivities may find it difficult to follow the anti-inflammatory diet, especially if they are sensitive to more than one food group.

Cost: The anti-inflammatory diet can be expensive because of its emphasis on food quality. This is usually a good thing, as higher quality food potentially contains a higher nutrient density than its lower quality counterparts. However, purchasing food that is organic, grass-fed, free-range, or otherwise higher quality can quickly become pricey.

Can be Complicated: The anti-inflammatory diet can be complicated and overwhelming because of the sheer amount of foods and recipes. Additionally, Dr. Weil recommends people avoid certain fruits and vegetables unless they are organic; that kind of advice can cause confusion, so we recommend you just include fruits and veggies wherever you can.

While the anti-inflammatory diet is well-rounded and nutritious, there are a few drawbacks to be aware of. You may need to budget differently for the anti-inflammatory diet and do your own research on allergens, food quality, and recipes before starting the diet.

How It Compares

The 2019 U.S. News and World Report Best Diets ranks the anti-inflammatory number 15 in Best Diets Overall and gives it an overall score of 3.3/5.

USDA Recommendations

The federal dietary recommendations include five food groups: fruit, vegetables, grains, dairy, and protein. The key recommendations in the federal guidelines include:

  • “A variety of vegetables from all of the subgroups—dark green, red and orange, legumes (beans and peas), starchy, and other
  • Fruits, especially whole fruits
  • Grains, at least half of which are whole grains
  • Fat-free or low-fat dairy, including milk, yogurt, cheese, and/or fortified soy beverages
  • A variety of protein foods, including seafood, lean meats and poultry, eggs, legumes (beans and peas), and nuts, seeds, and soy products
  • Oils
  • Limited saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and sodium”

The anti-inflammatory diet guidelines mesh very well with the federal dietary recommendations. Both sets of guidelines emphasize whole fruits and vegetables, whole grains, a variety of protein sources, nuts and seeds, and oils. Additionally, both the anti-inflammatory diet and the federal recommendations limit saturated and trans fats and added sugars.

Some key differences between the two include:

  • The anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t mention sodium intake
  • The federal recommendations emphasize dairy foods, while the anti-inflammatory diet encourages only occasional consumption of dairy
  • The federal recommendations suggest making half of grains whole, while the anti-inflammatory diet discourages consumption of any grains that are not whole

It’s important to know how many calories you should be consuming each day in order to reach your weight goals, whether your goal is to lose, maintain, or gain weight.

Most people need around 2,000 calories per day. Smaller-framed women and children may need less; men and very active people may need more. The anti-inflammatory diet is based on a general recommendation of 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day but notes that calorie needs are extremely individual. Age, height, weight and activity level all play a role in your caloric needs.

Similar Diets

Mediterranean Diet: The anti-inflammatory diet is based on the Mediterranean diet, so it’s no surprise that the two are very similar. Just like there isn’t a single way to eat on the anti-inflammatory diet, the same is true for the Mediterranean diet. Both diets emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthy fats, and herbs. The Mediterranean diet has been associated with a decreased risk of heart disease, and it's also been shown to reduce blood pressure and bad LDL cholesterol.

Neither diet is restrictive, and both provide adequate intakes of all essential nutrients. But just like the anti-inflammatory diet, the Mediterranean diet can also be expensive and require a lot of home cooking, which can present time conflicts for busy people.

DASH Diet: The DASH Diet—or Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—is another healthful eating pattern that emphasizes fresh produce, lean protein, and whole grains. The original intention of the DASH Diet research was to develop a diet that could treat high blood pressure for the long-term. The DASH Diet largely focuses on salt intake, because sodium is one of the main culprits behind hypertension.

The anti-inflammatory diet is similar to the DASH Diet in many ways, except for that the anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t have a focus on salt consumption. Both diets are relatively easy to follow and unrestrictive, but both can be expensive due to the costs of fresh fruit and vegetables (versus the costs of most packaged foods).

Mayo Clinic Diet: The Mayo Clinic Diet also emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, but it also focuses on weight loss, whereas the anti-inflammatory diet treats weight loss as a secondary benefit. The Mayo Clinic diet expects dieters to lose an average of six to 10 pounds in the first two weeks, and then continue losing one to two pounds per week if you continue to stick to the diet.

The Mayo Clinic diet is more restrictive than the anti-inflammatory diet at first, but it allows people to loosen up after the first two weeks, during which they target harmful lifestyle behaviors such as eating while watching TV.

The Mayo Clinic diet may be better than the anti-inflammatory diet for those who want to lose weight and work on developing healthier habits. But the anti-inflammatory diet is better for those who just want a nutritious eating plan they can stick to for a long time.

A Word From Verywell

The anti-inflammatory diet is a great place to start if you’re looking to increase the nutritional quality of your current eating habits. It’s not restrictive and it allows you to experiment with a wide variety of flavorful foods.

While diet is important, be sure to be mindful of other areas in your life that may need attention, such as sleep, exercise, and relationships. All of these things come together to create a healthy lifestyle that will last forever.

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