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Anti-inflammatory diet: everything you need to know

Anti-inflammatory diet: everything you need to know

Published: 23 May, 2024 | 10'

Recently, the anti-inflammatory diet has been gaining popularity among those seeking a healthy lifestyle.

But what does this diet consist of? We'll tell you all about it with the help of Dr. Yaiza Acosta, a nutritionist and sports doctor.

What is an anti-inflammatory diet?

The anti-inflammatory diet is a dietary pattern focused on modulating inflammation in the body. "Its objective is to improve health and reduce the risk of chronic inflammatory processes such as diabetes, cardiovascular, mental, or digestive disorders," says Dr. Acosta.

What is inflammation and why is it important to control it?

Inflammation is a physiological response of the immune system to an attack with the aim of eliminating danger and protecting and defending the body. This response occurs in the face of external factors such as an injury or an unbalanced diet, among others.

Under normal conditions, inflammation occurs as a self-limited and controlled process. However, when this process becomes uncontrolled and prolonged, it evolves into a chronic condition that can stimulate the development of certain cardiovascular, neurological, and metabolic disorders," explains Yaiza. Thus, unregulated inflammatory response can cause more harm than its original trigger.

Process of inflammation in the human body

An attack on the body can trigger responses at the cellular, tissue, or organ level, all with the aim of defending its integrity locally and systemically.

The immune system detects the initial aggression and acts in a coordinated manner, activating a cascade of reactions that control the situation. This cascade generates factors that mediate inflammation, including cytokines, which regulate the degree of inflammation according to their quantity.

Importance of balancing nutrient intake

The nutrients provided by the foods we consume are responsible for supplying the body with the energy it needs to function properly and cope with daily activities. Combining proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals in a balanced and consistent way is important for maintaining a healthy diet.

  • To incorporate foods into our diet rationally and healthily, we can rely on the food pyramid, which serves as the foundation of a nutritious diet.

Symptoms of chronic inflammation

In normal conditions, inflammation occurs as a self-limited process. However, when the mechanisms responsible for its resolution fail to eliminate the causative agent, chronic inflammation develops and can persist for months or even years. Dr. Acosta confirms that "if this inflammation persists for a prolonged period of time, it is the cause of the majority of chronic diseases, posing a great threat to health."

Among the most common symptoms observed during chronic inflammatory processes are:

  • Bodily discomfort.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Sleep disorders, leading to insomnia.
  • Mood disorders such as anxiety and even depression.
  • Gastrointestinal complications, accompanied by difficulties in evacuation and gastric reflux.
  • Weight gain or loss.

The anti-inflammatory diet and its importance for health

Monitoring the foods we include in our diet and prioritizing those that are beneficial to our health is important for the proper functioning of the body. In a study, it was found that the incidence of Inflammatory Bowel Disease in Spain increases every year, with figures in 2021 of 16.2 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. This increase has created the need to establish anti-inflammatory dietary patterns.

How does the anti-inflammatory diet work?

Anti-inflammatory diets are based on increasing the consumption of foods with anti-inflammatory properties and limiting or avoiding those that activate inflammation-related processes. In this way, the consumption of abundant amounts of fruits, vegetables, unprocessed foods, and foods without trans fats is prioritized.

Basic principles of the anti-inflammatory diet

The anti-inflammatory diet "focuses on the consumption of nutrient-rich foods and the elimination of foods that contribute to inflammation in the body," says Yaiza. The basic principles of this type of diet include:

  • Incorporating a wide variety of healthy foods.
  • Consuming only unsaturated fats.
  • Adding a good source of omega-3 fatty acids daily.
  • Eliminating or restricting processed and/or refined foods.
  • Including high-protein sources.
  • Consuming large amounts of fruits and vegetables.
  • Adding whole grains.

To reduce inflammation and enhance the effects that the anti-inflammatory diet can have on the body, it is important to follow healthy daily habits such as regular exercise, maintaining a healthy sleep routine, and managing stress, among others.

Benefits of the Anti-Inflammatory Diet

The goal of adopting an anti-inflammatory diet is to reduce or avoid the consumption of foods that have a pro-inflammatory effect and prevent or alleviate symptoms caused by inflammation. This modulation of inflammation can help prevent health problems such as gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, or immunological disorders.

Reduction of inflammation and abdominal bloating

Abdominal bloating is one of the most common symptoms that affect people, with a prevalence of 16-30% in the population. Generally, intestinal gas that causes bloating occurs after meals and resolves spontaneously. However, in some cases, this bloating persists, causing greater discomfort and negatively impacting daily life. Gas can be caused by various factors, although diet is one of the main contributors.

"Processed foods high in carbohydrates and salt are not easily absorbed in the small intestine, favoring an increase in abdominal bloating," says Yaiza. "On the other hand, including foods with anti-inflammatory properties can contribute to modulating the inflammation that occurs after consuming them."

Improved cardiovascular health

Increasing the consumption of foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids, replacing trans fats with unsaturated fats, and including fruits, vegetables, nuts, and whole grains are some of the most important strategies that anti-inflammatory diets adopt to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular conditions. These dietary changes contribute to reducing plasma glucose and cholesterol levels, promoting improved cardiovascular function.

Weight control and digestive health

Overweight and obesity have been associated with a higher risk of metabolic abnormalities due to the association between excessive fat accumulation and inflammation induction.

Therefore, adopting a diet characterized by low-inflammatory foods is associated with a decrease in body fat percentage, improving cardiovascular, metabolic, and inflammatory statuses.

Support for mental health

In a study conducted in 2018, it was found that there was a 1.4 times greater likelihood of being diagnosed with depression or developing associated symptoms in individuals with pro-inflammatory diets compared to those consuming anti-inflammatory diets.

Strengthening the immune system

The immune system plays a very important role in the development of conditions related to chronic inflammation. Proinflammatory mediators are produced by cells belonging to the immune system, so including foods with anti-inflammatory properties in the diet can help mitigate the inflammatory effects.

Improve sports performance

High-intensity or endurance physical exercise, especially that involving large muscle groups, can cause local inflammation. Following an anti-inflammatory diet can therefore be beneficial in reducing the symptoms derived from exercise-induced inflammation.

When is an anti-inflammatory diet recommended?

The anti-inflammatory diet is recommended and indicated for anyone since it does not limit or eliminate foods with essential nutrients. However, it is advised for people who have chronic inflammation or gastrointestinal, metabolic, or mood disorders.

How to start with the anti-inflammatory diet: practical steps and tips

"The concern about the increase in chronic diseases related to inflammation in the population has influenced the search for dietary guidelines that contribute to reducing the risk of developing them or at least mitigate their symptoms," says Yaiza. Society is increasingly aware of the importance of nutrition and its role in health. Therefore, new dietary trends have emerged, including the anti-inflammatory diet.

Foods recommended to include in the anti-inflammatory diet

Recommended foods to include in the anti-inflammatory diet

  • Fruits and vegetables. A high content of fruits and vegetables in the diet guarantees the consumption of most macronutrients, fiber, and compounds that are antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Garlic is a great example of a food with anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Extra virgin olive oil. It contains a large amount of polyphenols, although cooking it at high temperatures can destroy these nutrients, thus eliminating its beneficial properties.
  • Fish such as salmon and sardines are great sources of polyunsaturated fatty acids, especially omega-3. Salmon, in particular, is a source of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), two omega-3 fatty acids with high anti-inflammatory activity. Some types of seeds like chia and flaxseeds also contain a high content of this type of polyunsaturated fats.
  • White meats (chicken, turkey, rabbit). The meat of these animals is rich in proteins and B-complex vitamins.
  • Nuts. With a high content of healthy fats, proteins, and fiber.
  • Probiotics. Their intake helps maintain good intestinal health.
  • Tea. Tea contains polyphenols, molecules with beneficial properties for health as they are anti-inflammatory and antioxidants. Tea polyphenols have been associated with a reduction in pro-inflammatory factors in clinical studies.
  • Foods rich in dietary fiber (such as whole grains). They can increase the availability of antioxidant substances (vitamins), favoring their action in the gastrointestinal tract, where they contribute to maintaining normal intestinal flora and promote the reduction of levels of anti-inflammatory substances.
  • Spices. Adding spices with anti-inflammatory properties like ginger, cayenne, oregano, or turmeric to meals. Turmeric, in particular, contains a compound called curcumin, which is responsible for its anti-inflammatory functions.

Foods to avoid or limit in the anti-inflammatory diet

  • Refined sugars. High consumption of sugars is associated with a high risk of cardiovascular, cerebral, and metabolic diseases such as type II diabetes mellitus.
  • Foods high in saturated and trans fats. The main source of trans fatty acids is partially hydrogenated oils, resulting from industrial processing. Their incorporation into the diet can increase the production of oxygen free radicals (ROS) and pro-inflammatory substances.
  • Processed foods. Processed foods are made up of ingredients that the body does not absorb or does not easily absorb, such as certain additives and preservatives.
  • Foods low in antioxidants.
  • Red meats (pork, beef, lamb). Meats from cattle and pork, among others, have a high content of saturated fatty acids. The excessive consumption of this type of meat increases the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
  • Foods low in fiber.
  • Alcohol. Many alcoholic beverages have a high sugar content, which is related to an increase in the production of pro-inflammatory mediators.

Anti-inflammatory diet for vegetarians and vegans

People with a vegetarian or vegan dietary profile can also follow the anti-inflammatory diet. For this, "it is important to keep in mind that the diet should be adapted by replacing animal sources with plant-based sources that provide the same antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties sought with this diet," informs Yaiza. It is also important to pay attention to not lose essential nutrients during the process, ensuring a diet that is as varied and complete as possible without giving up either type of diet.

Tips for incorporating the anti-inflammatory diet into daily life

Before making any substantial changes to our usual diet, it is advisable to consult with a professional to carry out an initial evaluation and subsequent monitoring to control the progress and effects it has on our body.

Meal planning and anti-inflammatory recipes

The most difficult part when adopting a new habit is starting to do it consistently. The benefits that our body obtains after establishing a new healthy habit are achieved in the long term, so it is important to maintain it for a period of time to achieve the expected results.

  • Steps to build a weekly menu:

"The first thing to consider when starting an anti-inflammatory diet is to know that not all people respond the same way to the same menu to achieve the expected effects of the anti-inflammatory diet," says Dr. Acosta. Therefore, it is very important to pay attention to how our body feels after consuming certain foods, thus determining which specific foods generate undesirable and uncomfortable sensations.

Anti-inflammatory diets do not specify rules about portion sizes or the number of calories that should be consumed per day, but they focus on the type of foods that we include and exclude from our diet based on their pro- or anti-inflammatory properties. Therefore, it is very important to take into account the following:

  • Knowing which type of foods are good for our body by incorporating those with anti-inflammatory properties, including fruits, vegetables, unsaturated fats, and those high in polyphenols.
  • Knowing which type of foods should be avoided, limiting or eliminating those that cause discomfort, have little nutritional value, or contribute to inflammation.
  • Controlling portion sizes. Although anti-inflammatory diets do not establish limits, it is important not to have excessive portions and to consume only the amount of calories that our body needs to supply the energy necessary for daily activities.
  • Replacing foods with healthier versions. For example, replacing the intake of butter with vegetable fats and oils like olive oil, or replacing white flour with whole grains.

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Content prepared in collaboration with Dr. Yaiza Acosta Chinea. This article is informative and does not replace the consultation with a specialist.

Dra. Yaiza AcostaAbout the specialist

Dr. Yaiza Acosta is a medical doctor, specialist in physical medicine and sports, and specialist in nutrition and applied dietetics. She also contributes to the promotion of a healthy lifestyle through her social media platforms as @dra_saludable.

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