The term “anti-inflammatory” has become a dieting buzzword, but what does it actually mean? Is all inflammation bad? And how does an anti-inflammatory diet impact your health?

The answers to these questions will help you seamlessly integrate healthier choices into your diet for lasting success. If you want to feel better and live longer, keep reading.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet limits foods with a high pro-inflammatory potential and favors foods containing specific compounds that reduce inflammation in the body. Foods that increase inflammation are all those ones with a bad reputation: highly processed meats (sausage, pepperoni, etc.), refined carbohydrates (white bread, white rice), sugary beverages (soda, sports drinks), and many desserts.

Conversely, many anti-inflammatory foods are notoriously healthy: leafy green vegetables (kale, spinach, etc.), dark yellow veggies (squash, peppers), whole grains (quinoa, oatmeal), tea and fruits. These foods all contain flavonoids, carotenoids, fiber, or vitamins—compounds that reduce inflammation. However, some anti-inflammatory foods are less obviously healthy. Coffee and wine, for example, both contain anti-inflammatory properties.  

Is all inflammation bad?

Not all inflammation is harmful. It’s important to understand the difference between acute and chronic inflammation. Acute inflammation is a temporary protective response to an infection or injury. When the body is trying to defend against a virus or bacteria, an increase in white blood cells triggers the release of inflammatory chemicals. This is why you may experience a fever, headache, or stuffy nose while your body fights off the infection.

Chronic inflammation is more serious and can lead to life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, and some bowel diseases. There are numerous causes of chronic inflammation, including physical inactivity, obesity, diet, smoking, stress, sleep disorders, and age. All of these different risk factors make it difficult to pinpoint the specific cause of chronic inflammation in any one individual. However, scientists have determined that a healthy diet can reduce chronic inflammation over time.  

How does an anti-inflammatory diet impact your health?

For starters, an anti-inflammatory diet is beneficial because of all the foods it leaves out. A growing body of research shows that pro-inflammatory diets are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, including a recent study of more than 200,000 men and women which analyzed food questionnaires filled out regularly over 32 years. The results showed that people with the most pro-inflammatory diets had a 38% higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease compared to those with the most anti-inflammatory diets.

Other research supports these findings, indicating that a diet rich in minimally processed plant-based foods (as anti-inflammatory as it gets) is the ideal nutritional regimen for cardiovascular health. In short, anti-inflammatory foods are good for your heart and pro-inflammatory foods are… not.

To sum up, a healthy diet should be both abundant in anti-inflammatory foods (fiber, phytonutrients, healthy fats!) and avoid pro-inflammatory foods (processed meats, refined carbs and sugars) as much as possible.