A Comprehensive Guide to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Medically Reviewed
Foods to eat on an anti-inflammatory diet include pomegranates, avocados, and cauliflower.iStock (2); Depositphotos

Before you can fully grasp why an anti-inflammatory diet may be helpful and is one of the most buzzed-about diets right now, it helps to understand what inflammation is in the first place. When you hear the word “inflammation,” you may immediately think about the swelling or redness that comes from stubbing your toe. Those are definitely two external signs of inflammation, but there’s more to it.

Inflammation occurs naturally as part of the body’s immune response. When your body is fighting an infection or injury, it sends inflammatory cells to the rescue. This results in those classic signs — swelling, redness, and sometimes pain. That’s completely normal and natural. (1)

As long as the body stays in control, that is. The story changes when inflammation lingers and never fully goes away. This chronic inflammation means your body is always in a state of high alert, and it can trigger some major health issues, including heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and cancer. (1)

Fortunately, your inflammation levels are somewhat in your control. Factors like smoking, being overweight or obese, and drinking excessively can increase your risk of inflammation. (1) Diet also plays a role, and some experts say adjusting the foods and drinks you take in could be a better route to lowering inflammation levels than relying on medication. (2) Taking medication for chronic pain only when necessary is probably also a good idea, since many drugs come with unpleasant side effects, like fogginess, sleepiness, and memory loss. (3)

Are you interested in learning which foods make up the anti-inflammatory diet and how it may help you ward off certain diseases? Read on.

Some Insight on How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Works

There isn’t a formal diet plan that outlines exactly what to eat, how much of it, and when. Rather, the anti-inflammatory diet is about filling your meals with foods that have been shown to fight inflammation and — just as important — cutting out foods that have been shown to contribute to it. (3)

Brittany Scanniello, RD, a nutritionist based in Boulder, Colorado, says to think of the anti-inflammatory diet as a lifestyle rather than a diet. “An anti-inflammatory diet is an eating plan that works to reduce or minimize low-grade inflammation within our bodies,” she says.

Ideally, you would eat eight to nine servings of fruits and veggies per day, limit your intake of red meat and dairy, choose complex carbohydrates over simple ones, and swear off processed foods. (3)

You’ll want to choose foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids — including anchovies, salmon, halibut, and mussels — rather than omega-6 fatty acids, which are found in corn oil, vegetable oil, mayonnaise, salad dressings, and many processed foods. (4,5)

Scanniello says eating this way is a good idea for everyone because many of the foods with the potential to lead to inflammation aren’t healthy anyway. “I believe everyone can benefit from limiting or eliminating sugar and highly processed foods and choosing unsaturated fats, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins,” Scanniello says.

She says the anti-inflammatory diet could be especially helpful for someone who’s dealing with chronic inflammation as a result of a health condition. Athletes and people who exercise at a high intensity and are looking to lessen their baseline inflammation could also find it beneficial, she says.

What the Research Says About Reducing Inflammation in the Diet

There’s plenty of research showing the negative effects of inflammation — in fact, chronic inflammatory diseases are the most significant cause of death in the world. (6) It’s associated with health issues such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and obesity. (7,8) It has also been linked with an increased risk of colorectal cancer, with those eating pro-inflammatory foods (such as refined carbohydrates and red meat) at twice the risk of developing the cancer, according to a June 2019 study published in Nutrients. (9) What’s more, a pro-inflammatory diet seems to increase the risk of mortality overall by 23 percent, according to a meta-analysis published in June 2019 in Clinical Nutrition. (10)

Several other studies have looked at the effect of eating a diet rich in anti-inflammatory foods on certain health conditions. For instance, a November 2017 article published in Frontiers in Nutrition shows that choosing anti-inflammatory foods may help people with rheumatoid arthritis (RA). In particular, the authors write that reducing inflammation in the diet, such as by following a vegan or vegetarian diet, may help delay disease progression, reduce joint damage, and potentially reduce reliance on RA medication when used as a complementary therapy. (11) Another study, which was small and prospective, was published in May 2019 in Integrative Cancer Therapies, and found that when people with familial adenomatous polyposis (cancer of the colon and rectum, called colorectal cancer) followed a low-inflammatory diet, they reported having fewer gastrointestinal issues and an improved physical state in general. (12) A prospective cohort study of more than 68,000 Swedish adults, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in September 2018, found that following an anti-inflammatory diet was linked with a 13 percent lower risk for death from cancer.

The study authors also observed that smokers following an anti-inflammatory diet had a 31 percent lower risk of dying from any cause, a 36 percent lower risk of dying from cardiovascular disease, and a 22 percent lower risk of dying from cancer. (13) Smoking is a habit associated with a higher risk of health issues, and following a diet like this won’t necessarily cure you of those if you keep smoking. Yet research suggests it may help reduce the impact of disease, delay disease progression, reduce how much medication is needed, and reduce joint damage.

Other studies have found that anti-inflammatory foods can help in the following ways:

  • Recovery in athletic training (14)
  • Management of pain associated with aging (15)
  • Heart protection (16)
  • Improved quality of life for people with multiple sclerosis (17)

A Food List of What to Eat and Avoid on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Following an anti-inflammatory diet means loading up on foods that research has shown can help lower inflammation and reducing your intake of foods that have the opposite effect. One of the best things about the diet is that there are plenty of food options and lots of wiggle room, so you can pick and choose the foods you like best.

If you need a little more structure, consider adopting the Mediterranean diet. There’s a lot of overlap with the anti-inflammatory diet because both emphasize eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. (2)

Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat


Foods to Eat Sparingly or Avoid to Help Avoid Inflammation

  • Refined carbohydrates, such as white bread, pastries, and sweets
  • Foods and drinks that are high in sugar, including soda and other sugary beverages
  • Red meat
  • Dairy
  • Processed meat, such as hot dogs and sausages
  • Fried foods


A 7-Day Sample Menu for Anti-Inflammatory Diet Beginners

The following sample menu isn't one-size-fits-all, but it does offer some creative ideas for adding anti-inflammatory foods to your meals. If you're managing a certain disease, such as diabetes, you may have dietary needs that this meal plan doesn't address. Be sure to consult your healthcare team before making any major changes to your eating habits.

Day 1

Breakfast Steel-cut oats with slivered almonds and blueberries and a cup of coffee

Lunch Chopped kale salad with chickpeas, beets, and pomegranate seeds tossed with an olive oil and lemon juice vinaigrette

Dinner Anchovy, salmon, and tomato-topped pizza on a cauliflower crust

Snack Small handful of homemade trail mix with unsalted nuts and raisins

Day 2

Breakfast Steel-cut oatmeal topped with walnuts and sliced strawberries; a cup of coffee

Lunch Salmon sashimi with a side of broccoli and a side of brown rice and ginger

Dinner Ginger curry with whitefish, kale, barley, and a glass of red wine

Snack Sliced mango

Day 3

Breakfast Quinoa bowl with sliced banana, blueberries, and a drizzle of almond butter; a cup of green tea

Lunch Arugula salad with albacore tuna, grilled peaches, and walnuts

Dinner Spinach salad with grilled salmon and a side of brown rice

Snack Frozen grapes

Day 4

Breakfast Kale and mushroom frittata, half a grapefruit, and a cup of coffee

Lunch Grain bowl with brown rice, chickpeas, and sautéed bok choy

Dinner Veggie burger on a whole-grain bun with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts

Snack Small handful of unsalted mixed nuts

Day 5

Breakfast Chia seed pudding, apple slices with almond butter, and a cup of green tea

Lunch Spinach salad with tuna and shredded carrots

Dinner Red peppers stuffed with ground turkey, quinoa, chickpeas, and a glass of red wine

Snack Small handful of unsalted almonds

Day 6

Breakfast Soy yogurt with fresh blueberries and a cup of coffee

Lunch Quinoa bowl with sardines, tomatoes, black beans, sautéed spinach, and avocado

Dinner Salmon with lentils and a spinach salad

Snack A square of dark chocolate and a small handful of unsalted mixed nuts

Day 7

Breakfast Peanut butter and banana sandwich and a cup of coffee

Lunch Smashed avocado and halved cherry tomatoes on top of whole-grain toast, and a side of cottage cheese

Dinner Seitan with bell peppers, mushrooms, and broccoli stir-fried in olive oil

Snack Cherries

What Are the Possible Health Benefits of Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

Following an anti-inflammatory diet has been shown to help people with:

  • Autoimmune disorders including RA and MS (6,17)
  • Heart disease (13)
  • Cancer, including breast cancer and colorectal cancer (19,20,21)
  • Alzheimer’s disease (22)
  • Diabetes (22)
  • Pulmonary disease (6)
  • Epilepsy (23)

Are There Any Disadvantages to an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

There are no major downsides associated with the anti-inflammatory diet — though there may be a learning curve to master which inflammation-fighting foods to eat and which foods to avoid.

If your diet is currently filled with processed foods, meat, and dairy, you may have a bit of an adjustment period. You’ll want to clear your fridge and pantry of potentially inflammatory foods, and you’ll likely need to devote more time and effort to meal prep, since stopping for fast food is a no-go on this diet. (3,13)

What to Expect When You Start the Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Once you start eating this way, you’ll probably start to feel better overall. “People may feel better, with less bloating, gastrointestinal discomfort, and achiness,” Scanniello says. You may also see your mood improve as you change your eating habits. (2)

But don’t expect to notice immediate changes with regard to a health condition — it’ll likely take two or three weeks for you to notice that kind of effect, and possibly up to 12 weeks to know whether the results will stick, according to the American Osteopathic Association’s website The DO. (

In Summary, Should You Change Your Diet to Reduce Inflammation?

The anti-inflammatory diet is a healthy approach to eating, whether you suffer from chronic inflammation or not. “An anti-inflammatory diet is a way of life and will in the end better your health, well-being, and overall quality of life,” Scanniello says. “I believe everyone can benefit from a diet plan such as this, and I especially have found it helpful in populations with chronic inflammation and health conditions.”

Additional reporting by Laura McArdle.

Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking

  1. Why You Should Pay Attention to Chronic Inflammation. Cleveland Clinic. October 14, 2014.
  2. Foods That Fight Inflammation. Harvard Health Publishing. November 7, 2018.
  3. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: A Way to Manage Chronic Pain. Cleveland Clinic. July 13, 2015.
  4. Sears B. Anti-Inflammatory Diets. Journal of the American College of Nutrition2015.
  5. 8 Food Ingredients That Can Cause Inflammation. Arthritis Foundation.
  6. Pahwa R, Goyal A, Bansal P, et al. Chronic Inflammation. StatPearls.  March 2, 2020.
  7. Aggarwal BB, Prasad S, Reuter S, et al. Identification of Novel Anti-Inflammatory Agents From Ayurvedic Medicine for Prevention of Chronic Diseases. Current Drug TreatmentsOctober 1, 2011.
  8. Vasunilashorn S. Retrospective Reports of Weight Change and Inflammation in the U.S. National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Journal of ObesityFebruary 11, 2013.
  9. Obon-Santacana M, Romaguera D, Gracia-Lavedan E, et al. Dietary Inflammatory Index, Dietary Non-Enzymatic Antioxidant Capacity, and Colorectal and Breast Cancer Risk (MCC-Spain Study). NutrientsJune 21, 2019.
  10. Garcia-Arellano A, Martinez-Gonzalez MA, Ramallal R, et al. Dietary Inflammatory Index and All-Cause Mortality in Large Cohorts: The SUN and PREDIMED Studies. Clinical NutritionJune 2019.
  11. Khanna S, Jaiswal KS, Gupta B. Managing Rheumatoid Arthritis With Dietary Interventions. Frontiers in NutritionNovember 8, 2017.
  12. Pasanisi P, Gariboldi M, Verderio P, et al. A Pilot Low-Inflammatory Dietary Intervention to Reduce Inflammation and Improve Quality of Life in Patients With Familial Adenomatous Polyposis: Protocol Description and Preliminary Results. Integrative Cancer TherapiesMay 4, 2019.
  13. Kaluza J, Hakansson N, Harris HR, et al. Influence of Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Smoking on Mortality and Survival in Men and Women: Two Prospective Cohort Studies. Journal of Internal MedicineSeptember 12, 2018.
  14. Buonocore D, Negro M, Arcelli E, et al. Anti-Inflammatory Dietary Interventions and Supplements to Improve Performance During Athletic Training. Journal of the American College of Nutrition2015.
  15. How an Anti-Inflammatory Diet Can Relieve Pain as You Age. Cleveland Clinic. November 6, 2015.
  16. Casas R, Sacanella E, Urpi-Sarda M, et al. Long-Term Immunomodulatory Effects of a Mediterranean Diet in Adults at High Risk of Cardiovascular Disease in the PREvención con DIeta MEDiterránea (PREDIMED) Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of NutritionJuly 2016.
  17. Riccio P, Rossano R. Nutrition Facts in Multiple Sclerosis. ASN Neuro. February 9, 2015.
  18. The Truth Behind the Most Popular Diet Trends of the Moment. Mayo Clinic. March 8, 2018.
  19. Anti-Inflammatory Diet May Fight Breast Cancer. UNC Nutrition Research Institute.
  20. Fan Y, Jin X, Man C, et al. Meta-Analysis of the Association Between the Inflammatory Potential of Diet and Colorectal Cancer Risk. OncotargetAugust 29, 2017.
  21. Tabung FK, Liu L, Wang W, et al. Association of Dietary Inflammatory Potential With Colorectal Cancer Risk in Men and Women. JAMA Oncology. January 18, 2018.
  22. Gardener SL, Rainey-Smith SR, Martins RN. Diet and Inflammation in Alzheimer's Disease and Related Chronic Diseases: A Review. Journal of Alzheimer's Disease2016.
  23. The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: 5 Things to Know. The DO: American Osteopathic Association. May 8, 2019.
  24. French JA, Koepp M, Naegelin Y, et al. Clinical Studies and Anti-Inflammatory Mechanisms of Treatments. EpilepsiaNovember 9, 2017.
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