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An Anti-Inflammatory Diet Actually Isn’t All That Special

TOMATOES. EGGPLANTS. BELL peppers. What do all of these vegetables have in common? If you guessed they all caused inflammation, you’d be wrong.

Sure, plenty of celebrities who claim to follow an anti-inflammatory diet avoid foods like nightshade vegetables. Tom Brady, for example, supposedly doesn’t eat (or didn't, at one time) tomatoes, bell peppers, or eggplants because they supposedly trigger inflammation.

The truth is, “There’s absolutely no science to show that the nightshade family has any impact on inflammation,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D., M.P.H., a nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, she says, “all of these foods have phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory.”

So what exactly are anti-inflammatory foods? Simply put, anti-inflammatory foods help fight inflammation. But to understand that, you’ll first need to learn what, exactly, inflammation is.

Inflammation is seemingly responsible for just about everything these days. Joint pain. Heart disease. Depression. But the truth is, inflammation isn’t always a bad thing. In small doses, it can actually help protect you from injuries and infection.

When you cut your finger, for example, your immune system rallies by sending out inflammatory cells to the injured area. These cells then start the healing process, triggering pain, swelling, and redness in the meantime. This is called “acute” (or short-term) inflammation.

The real problem occurs when the immune system keeps sending inflammatory cells throughout the body, even when there are no outside threats. For example, people who have arthritis experience chronic (or long-term) inflammation in the joint tissues which, over time, can damage the joints. And chronic inflammation has been linked to more than just arthritis. It can also play a role in causing or worsening diseases like heart disease, cancer, and type 2 diabetes, and depression, among others.

What causes all this long-term inflammation to occur? Sometimes, inflammation is caused by diseases; other times it’s caused by pollution. But our diet, exercise regimen, and lifestyle habits can also trigger—or help ease—inflammation, too. That’s where an anti-inflammatory diet comes in. By eating anti-inflammatory foods, we can help counter the inflammation in our body, allowing us to heal faster and live longer.

What can you eat in an anti-inflammatory diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet consists of mainly plants and some fatty fish. Plant foods are not only high in antioxidants, but they also contain compounds called flavonoids, which can help block the release of certain inflammatory cells, according to a 2016 review.

Photo credit: Claudia Totir
Photo credit: Claudia Totir

Fatty fish, like salmon, herring, and bluefin tuna, is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which, according to research published in the journal PLOS ONE, have been shown to lower the levels of three markers of inflammation of the blood: CRP (C-reactive protein), IL-6 (interleukin-6), and TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor alpha).

Some studies also show that foods like tart cherry juice and tart cherries, as well as ginger root, turmeric, and saffron can have an anti-inflammatory effect in the body, says Bonci.

Of course, if you want to follow an anti-inflammation diet, you’ll also need to cut out foods that have been shown to increase inflammation—meaning, foods that stimulate certain enzymes in the body that cause inflammation, says Bonci. That list, however, is relatively short. (And no, nightshades aren’t on it.)

Research shows that “the only foods that might provoke inflammation is copious amounts of sugar and trans fat,” says Bonci. There’s no good science showing that eating dairy, meat, or gluten (unless you have celiac disease) can trigger inflammation, she says.

All it takes is one look at the anti-inflammatory diet—eat mainly plant-based foods and fatty fish, and don’t eat processed foods that are high in sugar and trans fat—and the benefits become pretty self-explanatory. Even so, some research has confirmed many of them.

For example, one 2018 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that people who ate an anti-inflammatory diet were more likely to live longer than those who didn’t. Other research has found that those who ate more pro-inflammatory diets had a higher risk of heart disease. There’s even some evidence showing that an anti-inflammatory diet can help manage conditions like arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

How to follow an anti-inflammatory diet

There’s no set “anti-inflammatory diet”—the diet mainly consists of eating whole, plant-based foods as well as fatty fish—but the Mediterranean diet is a good example of what it might look like. That means filling up on whole-grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil, fish, and poultry. (One word of caution: Alcohol can cause inflammation, so you may want to shelve the vino, says Bonci.)

Photo credit: bit245
Photo credit: bit245

Think beyond Italy and Greece—and beyond the bowls of pasta. Look to countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey, and try to eat more turmeric, saffron, and za’atar.

There’s also no reason to avoid foods like whey protein, milk, chicken, or eggs—especially if you’re currently injured or experiencing inflammation, she says. “When your body is in a state of inflammation, you’re in breakdown mode, and getting enough protein becomes important,” says Bonci. “That’s not the time to cut out chicken or dairy.”

Eating enough protein and calories while you’re experiencing inflammation will help “minimize the pain, but maximize your gains,” she says.

Still wary of tomatoes? Just remember — Tom Brady may not eat them, but Patrick Mahomes certainly does.

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