Anti-Inflammatory Diets

Written by: Emily Russo, MS, RD, CDN

News headlines frequently highlight the link between inflammation and nutrition, but do these recommendations truly live up to the hype?

Everyday it seems like there’s a new headline highlighting the link between inflammation and nutrition, advising us on which foods to choose and which ones to avoid. But do these recommendations truly live up to the hype?

What is the best diet for treating arthritis? 

A diet high in fruits and vegetables may help. A diet high in Omega-3’s may help. Eating less processed foods may help. The conjunction of all three may help. It’s also quite possible that none of the above will provide the relief we were hoping for. 

And this is not specific to arthritis. People suffering from other conditions associated with chronic inflammation often have the same experience. Some people with acne, for example, claim that avoiding dairy products smoothed out their skin, while others have tried every elimination diet under the sun and still suffer.

So what do we really need to focus on when it comes to food and inflammation? It depends!

First, what exactly is inflammation?
Inflammation is a natural process in which the body is protecting itself from harm. We need it to survive – it’s not pure evil!

Acute inflammation occurs after an injury. For example, if you stub your toe, it becomes visibly red and inflamed from all of the white blood cells sent in to surround and protect the area. When it heals, the inflammation goes away.

Chronic inflammation, as seen in arthritis or other chronic diseases, lasts long term at a low level. This type of inflammation lingers because it’s not resolving a specific injury. And it’s this type of inflammation that’s the primary focus of studies linking inflammation and nutrition.

Nutrition Science
Unfortunately, nutrition studies are rarely conclusive because it’s difficult to isolate one food or nutrient as a causation factor. We do not know exactly what impacts inflammation in each individual. Studying an isolated nutrient in a petri dish or in rodents can provide helpful clues – but it’s not comparable to how food impacts us in our daily lives.

Despite this, results are often extrapolated to the human population and sensationalized or manipulated. It’s far more eye-catching to promise a handful of blueberries a day prevents dementia, or that avoiding dairy will cure acne, than to admit we can’t assign causation to one nutrient or one food.

No one is excited to read the headline, We Just Aren’t Quite Sure.

Anti-inflammatory Diets
These diets are built on the premise that by eating certain foods, an individual can either decrease inflammation or prevent it from developing in the first place.

The problem with this binary approach – demonizing certain foods and praising others – is that in many cases restricting certain foods or food groups can cause more harm than good. And the stress of managing it all can lead to even more inflammation (true story!). 

Below are examples of how certain foods or food groups are are often targeted in anti-inflammatory diets…

Sugar, Gluten, and Dairy
Do we need to avoid these foods groups? The short answer is “no.”

The longer answer is that besides those with allergies, or those recovering or dealing with certain medical conditions, there is no need to avoid any of these food groups because they DO NOT cause inflammation in the general pubic.

Though it’s tempting and seemingly harmless to avoid food groups as a treatment for what ails us, we may miss out on important nutrients when we limit our variety. Not to mention, it’s challenging (and stressful!) to avoid a whole food group for life.

Turmeric (source of curcumin)
Turmeric is delicious and colorful (like in this Crispy Turmeric Egg), but there is not enough evidence in humans to recommend natural curcumin – or its supplements – for curing any medical condition. It is also not proven to reduce inflammation.

If you are still curious, please address with your physician before taking any supplements OTC because it may interact with certain medications.

Examples of nightshades are tomatoes, eggplants, and peppers. They all have high antioxidant properties just like other fruits and vegetables. There’s no need to cut out nightshades for the prevention of inflammation unless you have a separate medical condition that requires it.

Athletic Greens
As per their website, the mission of this green powder is to “empower people to take ownership of their health.” This advertising strategy makes us feel like if we don’t buy in (for $99/month by the way), we aren’t taking care of ourselves. 

Just because AG contains lots of vitamins and our friends and neighbors love it, doesn’t mean it will do what we hope it will. Eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables is cheaper and gives us plenty of nutrients.

Don’t get caught up in the ratios and the math. There is no need to avoid Omega-6 fats often found in foods like walnuts and sunflower seeds. They do not cause inflammation. What about Omega-6 found in processed foods? In general, there are more benefits to Omega-6 fats when eaten in whole foods (such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals) than when found in packaged goods.

Omega-3 fats, found in foods such as salmon and flax, are typically touted as the more favored sibling, but it’s beneficial to incorporate both fats in our diets, from various sources. And that’s good enough!

Anecdotal Evidence
If you are certain that either eating or not eating something has helped with your symptoms, it does not mean it will have the same effect on someone else. In fact, given everyone’s unique needs, it’s actually highly unlikely.

Taking this all into consideration…
Without having to restrict any of the foods we love, enjoying a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, oils, nuts, or seeds support overall health long-term.

Reasons for this are not entirely clear but likely related to fiber, prebiotics, probiotics, antioxidants, and polyphenols that support gut health and the immune system. It’s like fielding a baseball or a football team. The pitcher or quarterback may get more attention, but you need a wide variety of talents and players to win. Variety is the name of the game!

❤️ As always, if you have any questions or comments, please reach out. We love to hear from you!


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  1. Carol Barrett

    Another easy to understand and common sense approach article written by you. You are doing an excellent job of educating your readers.

  2. Georgina Russo

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for this enlightening article. I noticed in your text there was a pop-up touting intermittent fasting. Is this a topic you could address in future?


    1. Emily Post author

      Thanks for following along, Gina. Those pop-ups love to open a whole new can of worms! Thanks for the suggestion on intermittent fasting, I will definitely put that on my list for the near future.

  3. Georgina Russo

    Hi Emily,

    Thanks for this enlightening article. I noticed in your text there was a pop-up touting intermittent fasting. Is this a topic you could address in future?



    Common sense! We are not all the same and what may “work” for one person does not always help someone else! Thanks for putting all of this in prospective!