“Anti-inflammation” diets are all the rage. But do they really work?

I have an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and it’s really no fun. It’s when the immune system pumps out a high number of antibodies, which in turn inflame and slowly destroy the thyroid gland. My face swells, my body feels cold and I sometimes become incredibly — almost unbelievably — tired.

When I was first diagnosed, I was told that there is no known cure.

So, naturally, I was a bit skeptical when a different doctor in South Korea (where I currently live) recently recommended I go on an anti-inflammatory diet. In the world of catch-all health solutions, the anti-inflammatory diet is certainly in vogue — which is often a red-flag sign of a fad diet.

However, as it turns out, several researchers believe in the idea of eating for anti-inflammatory purposes. Anti-inflammatory diets can prevent or even treat major diseases such as Alzheimer’s, rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes and psoriasis.

“[There is no] single compound that is the evil one, or one that is the magic elixir,” Barry Sears, president of the Inflammation Research Foundation in Massachusetts, said in a phone interview. “But it’s true that, if you follow an anti-inflammatory diet, you will basically reduce inflammation in your body and that will pay massive dividends for the rest of your life.”

... If you follow an anti-inflammatory diet, you will basically reduce inflammation in your body and that will pay massive dividends for the rest of your life.”

What’s an anti-inflammatory diet?

At its core, an anti-inflammatory diet calls for more colorful vegetables, fruits and lean proteins — all while cutting back on dairy, alcohol, added sugars and refined, processed carbs like white bread. It can sound a lot like the brand-name paleo, Whole30 or autoimmune protocol diet, but even those diets may have a rule or two that isn’t scientifically supported.

“[These diets] are making a name for it and saying, ‘I thought of this all by myself,’ but actually these ideas come from 2,500 years ago,” Sears said, adding that there’s also a lot of bad science spreading on the internet about what people should or shouldn’t eat.

“It’s like 12 blind men trying to describe an elephant. They’re all partially right, but they’re not perfectly describing it.”

Related: Foods that cause inflammation: 

6 inflammation-causing foods no one talks about
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6 inflammation-causing foods no one talks about
1. Agave

Despite its (questionable) rep as a worry-free sweetener, agave is ultimately still full of sugar—with a fructose content of up to 90 percent. “Sugar suppresses the activity of our white blood cells, which makes us more susceptible to infectious disease (colds, the flu, and so forth) as well as cancer,” explains Dr. Perricone. Plus, sugar overload can cause collagen fibers to lose their strength, making skin “more vulnerable to sun damage, wrinkles, and sagging,” he adds.

2. Frozen yogurt

Froyo has two potential inflammatory culprits: sugar and dairy. Milk can boost insulin levels and male hormones, and it’s a common allergen, which means it can trigger inflammatory reactions (anything from diarrhea to hives). But not all frozen yogurts are created equal, says Andrew Weil, M.D., director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine, and an anti-inflammatory evangelist. “Some frozen yogurts contain the milk protein casein, which may increase inflammation,” he explains. “Others contain specific probiotics that may actually reduce it.” (And some frozen “yogurts” contain no dairy at all and use coconut milk.)

3. Barley and Rye

These healthy (and delicious) grains don’t cause the same sugar spike that refined carbs do, but they can spark inflammation in some people. Why? The short answer is gluten. If you’re at all sensitive to it, and especially if you have Celiac disease, consuming barley or rye (in food or booze form) can cause your tissues to flame up. Go easy on these grains, especially if you are already feeling ache-y or having joint pain—two possible indicators of inflammation.

4. Seitan

Sure, you love the chewy, meat-like texture, but there’s a reason why this veggie staple is known as “wheat meat”: It’s made entirely from wheat gluten. And when it comes to inflammation, gluten “can trigger the immune system, causing inflammation in the intestinal tract,” explains Melissa Wood, nutritional health coach at The Morrison Center in New York City. And that can mean IBS, constipation, or bloating for some people.

5. Peanuts

Like milk, peanuts are a common allergen—and allergies set off a broad inflammatory response in the body while it struggles to fight off the foreign agent. Plus, peanuts are prone to molds and fungus, which can also result in inflammatory reactions, says Wood. So you may want to pass on the peanuts, and instead opt for raw organic almonds or other tree nuts and butters, she advises.

6. Seasoning mixes

Short-cut seasoning mixes may add an easy flavor burst to black bean tacos and salad dressings, but according to Wood, they usually contain artificial coloring (which can disrupt hormone function and lead to inflammation), and a big scoop of sugar. To get the same taste without all the bad stuff, she recommends a combo of cayenne pepper, sea salt, cracked pepper, and apple cider vinegar that you make yourself. (Or here’s a healthy recipe for taco seasoning.)


The science behind inflammation

Contrary to what it sounds like, inflammation doesn’t literally mean swollen or puffy body parts. It’s something we often don’t directly see or feel, and it’s the immune system’s natural response to fighting a disease or bad bacteria.

“We often think of inflammation as bad, but in reality, if we didn’t have inflammation, we would be dead as a doornail,” Sears said. “We’d have no defense against microbes and our physical injuries would never heal. So what you want to do is live in a good zone of inflammation — not too much, and not too little.”

Striking a balance is important, Sears said, because proteins, carbs and fats work together to help regulate our body’s inflammatory process. Cutting one of those three groups could tip our hormones out of balance and cause an unhealthy level of inflammation, he says, so we’re better off being skeptical about diet plans that villainize entire food groups entirely.

“There’s a lot of complexity here and most people promoting these ideas don’t have a clue of what’s going on at the molecular level, and they can make recommendations that may actually cause more inflammation,” he said. He mentioned the low-carb, high-fat ketogenic diet as an example: Though it does reduce carbohydrate and insulin levels in the blood, it causes the brain to release a steroid hormone called cortisol, which breaks down muscle mass to provide glucose for the brain.

“What’s the worst thing you can do? Be pumping large amounts of steroids into your system,” he said. “They depress your immune system, make you fat and makes you dumb by destroying the memory cells in the hippocampus.”

Here’s what you should eat

Balance is important, but “right now, our diet is more skewed toward pro-inflammatory foods,” Victoria Andersen, a clinical nutritionist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Applied Nutrition, said in a phone interview. “So it takes more of an effort to eat the anti-inflammatory ones.”

“Focus on whole grains, vibrant colors, darker colors, good fats and leaner proteins — that’s your day in and day out.”

Saturated fats, omega-6 fatty acids, excess carbohydrates and too many calories can all give rise to high inflammation, according to both Sears and Andersen. White rice, white bread, pasta, sausages and deli meats are known to be inflammatory foods (other red meats aren’t, Sears said).

Meanwhile, omega-3 fatty acids and polyphenols — the things that give fruits and vegetables their vibrant color — can help reduce inflammation (notice how white bread or white rice lack color, for example).

“Focus on whole grains, vibrant colors, darker colors, good fats and leaner proteins — that’s your day in and day out,” Andersen said. “But yeah, champagne can fit into your birthday party or cake on a wedding day or your traditional Thanksgiving dish or whatever — that’s absolutely important.”

Related: Famous people with Alzheimer's

Notable people with Alzheimer's
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Notable people with Alzheimer's
This file photo dated 04 November, 1991 shows US President Ronald Reagan giving a speech at the dedication of the library bearing his name in Simi Valley, California. He was US president from 1981 to 1989 and retreated from public life after it was revealed he was suffering from Alzheimer's disease. (Photo by J. David Ake, AFP/Getty Images)
Glenn Campbell performs during The Goodbye Tour at the Ryman Auditorium on January 3, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Ed Rode/Getty Images)
Picture dated 18 May 1991 of US actor Charles Bronson during the 44th Cannes film festival, southern France. Bronson died 30 August 2003 in Los Angeles of complications from pneumonia. (Photo by Gerard Julien, AFP/Getty Images)
392653 01: Actor Burgess Meredith performs in the television show 'The Twilight Zone.' (Photo Courtesy of Sci Fi Channel/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - AUGUST 31: Actor James Doohan recieves his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame August 31, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images)
LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 17: Malcolm Young of AC/DC performs on stage at Wembley Arena on January 17th, 1986 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Peter Still/Redferns)
NORMAN ROCKWELL'S AMERICA -- Pictured: Artist Norman Rockwell -- (Photo by: Gary Null/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)
Publicity close up of Hollywood actress Rita Hayworth wearing ornately decorated gloves and holding a cigarette in a cigarette holder.
NEW YORK CITY - FEBRUARY 29: Aaron Copeland attends 10th Annual Grammy Awards on February 29, 1968 at the New York Hilton Hotel in New York City. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage) (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Actor Peter Falk poses as he arrives for the premiere of his new film "Lakeboat" September 24, 2001 in Los Angeles. The film is an adaptation of David Mamet's comic play about a grad student who takes a summer job on a Great Lakes freighter and sees life through the eyes of his low-brow crew members. The film opens in limited release in Los Angeles September 28. REUTERS/Rose Prouser RMP/jp
Estelle Getty (Photo by Jim Smeal/WireImage)

She’s not a fan of “top 10” lists, but she did mention a few anti-inflammatory foods: olive oils, avocados, nuts and seeds, peanut butter without added sugar, salmon, sardines, walnuts, chia seeds, ground flax seeds, mackerel or other oily fish.

It’s all advice we’ve likely heard before. Sears recommended devoting one third of each plate to a lean protein, which should never exceed the size of your palm. The rest should go to fruits and vegetables — ideally, 10 servings a day, which is equivalent to about two pounds.

“How do you know you’ve used that meal as a drug to control inflammation? If you’re not hungry and you have peak mental acuity — if you’re not fatigued over the next five hours — then that meal was a hormonal winner for you,” he said. “The bad news is that it’s only for five hours. So every five hours for the rest of your life, you got to play the game again.”

Oprah loves bread.Source: Giphy

The problem with gluten-free diets

A recent study estimated that 3.1 million people in the U.S. eat a gluten-free diet, 72% of whom have not been diagnosed with celiac’s disease. Anti-inflammatory diets also often recommend going gluten-free, but Sears said the science behind that just doesn’t add up.

“Most people who say they are ‘gluten sensitive’ really aren’t. They say, ‘I feel better by not eating bread.’ Everyone would feel better by not eating bread,” he said. “The thing in bread that causes problems is not the gluten, but instead there are other carbohydrates called FODMAPs, [or Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, Mono-saccharides and Polyols.] These are carbohydrates that basically cause gastric distress, and when you take them out of your diet, you feel better.”

Related: Habits reduce risk of Alzheimer's

Andersen generally agreed with the idea that gluten-free diets may not be the answer for inflammation. People who go gluten-free are also generally cutting out simple carbohydrates like cookies, cakes and crackers — so it makes sense that they’re more energized. Plus, some gluten-free diets can actually worsen inflammation.

“People sometimes cut out gluten, but they switch to gluten-free pasta and gluten-free cookies,” she said. “Those are often more refined and may inadvertently bring up inflammation.”

Vibrant-colored fruits and vegetables contain polyphenols, which are known to help reduce inflammation, Sears said.Source: Pixabay

It’s not just about food

Excess inflammation isn’t just a matter of eating too many pizzas. Stress can drive up inflammation, while exercise can reduce it, experts say.

“Whats the best exercise? Don’t sit,” Sears said. “If nothing else, get out of your chair and walk around your desk every 20 minutes.”

He recommended thinking of it as an “80-15-5 rule” — 80% of inflammation reduction comes from diet, while 15% of it comes from exercise and 5% by reducing stress.

But no matter the method, bringing down our inflammation is a step toward better health. I haven’t tried anti-inflammatory eating yet, but it seems like following my doctor’s advice would be a good idea — not just for me, but for you, too.

“When I used to do these grocery store tours with medical students, I would tell them that what we do — our jobs, if you want to just simplify it — is to bring down inflammation in people’s lives,” Andersen said. “We’re just a bunch of inflammation squashers.”

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