What is An Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Mixed Grain, Mango and Black Bean Salad with Cumin-Chili Dressing

I was recently asked, “What is an anti-inflammatory diet?”

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


A simple answer: A diet built around whole foods with lots of produce, whole forms of grains, healthful fats and a couple of servings of fish each week (or equivalent omega-3 fatty acids).  An anti-inflammatory diet avoids processed refined grains, sugary foods, saturated and trans fats.

Many books and articles have been written about cooling inflammation in the body because it is implicated in many causes of morbidity and mortality, including heart disease, some cancers, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer’s, aging and women’s reproductive issues. 

Inflammation can be good or bad.  It is helpful when it is an acute, short-term response by the body’s immune system acting to heal infections and injuries.    

Inflammation is harmful when it is a chronic condition. The body produces free radicals and reactive oxygen species during normal cell metabolism and in response to “exposures” such as to environmental toxins, natural and artificial radiation and tobacco smoke.  If not stabilized by antioxidant mechanisms, these free radicals build up and cause damage to body cells, including DNA.  

The term ”oxidative stress” describes the burden placed on the body by unquenched free radicals that lead to chronic inflammation. Atherosclerosis or hardening of the arteries is considered an inflammatory process.  Inflammation may promote cancer by damaging genes and promoting processes that allow cancer cells to grow and spread.

Antioxidants that prevent inflammation and block the damage to cells include vitamins, minerals, enzymes (proteins that facilitate chemical reactions in cells), pigments like carotenoids and phytochemicals such as flavonoids found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, tea, especially green tea, chocolate and red wine. 

Consuming a variety of antioxidants is important because different antioxidants stabilize different free radicals.  Plus, antioxidants work synergistically for greater benefit.  Avoiding pro-inflammatory foods is also important.

Anti-Inflammatory Basics

FRUITS AND VEGETABLES supply the antioxidants vitamin C, E, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals.  Foods rich in vitamin K, dark leafy greens, broccoli, asparagus, olive, soy and canola oils may help arthritis. Research shows that eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables decreases markers of oxidative stress in the body and people who eat more antioxidant-rich foods have a lower risk of some diseases.

Include a rainbow of colored produce regularly to benefit from a variety of nutrients – deep red and purple berries, dark orange sweet potatoes and carrots, deep green leafy and other vegetables – even white cauliflower, onions and garlic are sources of antioxidants. 

How much do you need?  As little as 5 servings a day (2 ½ cups total) has been shown to be associated with less oxidative stress and better antioxidant status; some experts recommend 9 to 11 daily servings. 

WHOLE GRAINS and LEGUMES supply fiber which lowers levels of C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation in the body.  They also contain a variety of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and healthful, low-glycemic carbohydrates. 

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


HEALTHY FATS Fatty acids are building blocks of substances that can either promote or suppress inflammation.  Omega 3 fats in fatty fish, flaxseed and nuts and omega 9 fats in olive, canola and safflower oil may reduce inflammation.  Aim for 2 servings per week of cold water fish such as salmon or tuna (not fried, of course).   The body doesn’t convert much of the omega 3 fats in plant foods such as flaxseed and walnuts to the potent form found in fish but they supply fiber, protein and other key nutrients.

Avoid saturated and trans fats which are implicated in high blood cholesterol levels and heart disease. Select lean meats, trim the fat and include legumes and nuts for protein sources regularly. 

The importance of avoiding omega 6 fats (prominent in corn, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean oils) to counteract inflammation is controversial. The American Heart Association does not recommend against them for heart heath.  Omega 6 fats use the same metabolic pathways in the body as anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats and our intake of these fats has increased with consumption of more processed and refined foods so some experts suggest eating less of them to curb inflammation. 

Choose lowfat or nonfat dairy sources of DAIRY products supply and calcium and vitamin D and have been associated with less inflammation.

Avoid SUGAR, REFINED, PROCESSED and FRIED FOODS. Higher intakes of sugar are linked to inflammation and processed, refined and fried foods are sources of saturated, trans and omega 6 fats that either promote inflammation, excess calorie intake and crowd out nutrient-rich foods in the diet. 

BODY WEIGHT As little as a 7% weight loss in obese people has been shown to reduce markers of inflammation probably because fat cells make proteins that promote inflammation.  Physical activity is part of the equation, helping to reduce inflammation and can support achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. 

ADD FLAVOR Many herbs and spices have anti-inflammatory properties – ginger and turmeric (found in curry powder and yellow mustard) are especially well known.

HELP IN A BOTTLE? Some population groups such as vegans, pregnant women and people who eliminate an entire food group may require supplements or fortified foods but in general your best bet is to get antioxidants from food.  There is not proof that supplements of purified antioxidants help prevent chronic diseases and some have even been shown to be harmful.   

Here’s a recipe that includes a wealth of fruits, vegetables and grains to get you started on an anti-inflammatory diet.  It keeps for a couple of days in the fridge, carries well and makes enough to feed a crowd.

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto


Mixed Grain, Mango and Black Bean Salad with Cumin-Chili Dressing

A perfect party dish, this recipe can be prepared a day ahead and serves a crowd of 10 or more depending on appetites and other dishes.  Two days ahead, I will cook several types of grains, in sequential batches, and chill.   You can use a single grain but a combination adds interesting texture and more nutrition. 

6 1/2 cups cooked, cooled grains (such as barley, quinoa, farro, wheat berries and/or bulgur)

2 1/2 cups cooked black beans

1/2 cup chopped red onion

1/2 cup chopped green onion   

1 red bell pepper, chopped

1 yellow bell pepper, chopped

2 cups diced mango

1 jalapeno, finely chopped (optional)

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

Cumin-Chili Dressing:

½ cup mango balsamic vinegar or white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon crumbled oregano

1 1/2 teaspoons ground chili powder

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt

Ground black pepper, to taste

1/4 cup olive oil

Combine grains, black beans, red and green onions, bell peppers, mango, jalapeno and cilantro in a large bowl.  For dressing, stir together vinegar, oregano, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper.  Stir in olive oil.  Drizzle over salad and toss to blend.  Makes 10 to 12 servings.


1. The New Science Behind America’s Deadliest Diseases by Laura Landro July 16, 2012 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702303612804577531092453590070.html

2. Eating Right for Healthy Joints, Special Supplement, Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter, 2013.

3. Antioxidants, Friend of foe? ConsumerReports On Health, Volume 24, Number 4, April 2013.

4. New Ways to beat osteoarthritis pain, Harvard Women’s Health Watch Volume 20, Number 9 / May 2013

5. Green Tea Protects Brain Cells, Tufts University Health & Nutrition Letter, June 2013, p. 7.

6. Self-Report of Fruit and Vegetable Intake that Meets the 5 A Day Recommendations Is Associated with Reduced Levels of Oxidative Stress Biomarkers and Increased levels of Antioxidant Defense in Premenopausal Women. Rink, Mendola, Mumford, Poudrier, Browne, Wactawski-Wende, Perkins and Schisterman.  Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  June 2013, Volume 113 # 6 p. 776-785.

7. Is There an Anti-Inflammation Diet?  AICR http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=20135.

8.  Chronic Inflammation: The Elephant in the Room of Our Health, Carol Wheeler December 28, 2009 AICR http://preventcancer.aicr.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=17735&news_iv_ctrl=0&abbr=pr_hf_

9. Inflammation and Heart Disease http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/Inflammation-and-Heart-Disease_UCM_432150_Article.jsp

10. What you eat can fuel or cool inflammation, a key driver of heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic conditions, Harvard Health Publications


© 2013 Lorelle Del Matto

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.


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