Healthy Eating Tips

The 8 Biggest Misconceptions About the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, According to Dietitians

Photo: Stocksy/Marija Kovac
The anti-inflammatory diet is well known for its longevity-boosting, heart-healthy, and brain-friendly benefits, but its context is actually pretty vague. The sheer number of "expert-approved" tips, recommendations, and conflicting theories that exist in the zeitgeist about eating for inflammation is enough to overwhelm even the most well-informed nutrition pros. And as a result, there is an equal amount of confusion regarding the anti-inflammatory diet’s rules, favorable food sources, eating habits, and other lifestyle patterns. The excess of content and vague language used to outline the anti-inflammatory diet not only makes adopting it more difficult—it also causes many to hold onto misconceptions that are actually working against them.

A baseline definition of the anti-inflammatory diet emphasizes eating as many whole foods as possible—particularly produce, whole grains, nuts, beans, healthy fats, and fish—and minimizes added sugars, saturated fats, and heavily-processed foods. This regime is meant to decrease inflammation in the body, which in turn lowers your risk of chronic disease and boosts your heart and brain health, which can ultimately help you live longer.

This lowest-common-denominator definition is universal; however, many of the other recommendations and approaches to the diet and its lifestyle vary greatly. Our goal? To debunk the key anti-inflammatory diet myths dietitians hear time and again and set things straight first.

The biggest anti-inflammatory diet myths to avoid believing, according to RDs

1. All inflammation is bad.

Not all inflammation in the body is dangerous or unwanted. "We forget inflammation is not just some bad thing. [It's actually] the main defense that our body has against invading microorganisms or infections or anything that shouldn't be there," Karol Watson, MD, PhD, a cardiologist at UCLA, recently said on a Well+Good Podcast episode, The Inflammatory Language of Inflammation. "You want the right balance of appropriate inflammation and appropriate anti-inflammation."

Dr. Watson is, of course, referring to understanding the difference between acute—short term, like a bruise or swelling—inflammation and chronic inflammation, which is when inflammation lasts for unhealthy spans of time. “Acute inflammation is often a sign of healing," says Ilyse Schapiro, MS, RD, CDN. "It's the body’s natural response when fighting off infections or injuries, so the problem really comes when the body produces an inflammatory response without any injury or virus, whereby the inflammation becomes chronic and is bad for you."

Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, agrees, and affirms that chronic inflammation is the type we're hoping to combat when eating anti-inflammatory foods. “While an excess of inflammation can be problematic, we do need some level of inflammation present, as part of our normal immune responses and our responses to strenuous exercise, as two examples, and more,” Jones says. “It is only when there’s excess inflammation—known as chronic inflammation—that we see increased risks of heart disease, cognitive decline, poor recovery, joint pain, and digestive issues."

High levels of the inflammatory markers CRP (C Reactive Protein) and IL6 (Interleukin 6) in the blood indicate excess inflammation, so if you’re worried, speak to your physician about testing them at the lab, which can help determine any immediate need to lower inflammation. In general, however, both Schapiro and Jones underscore that you can combat chronic inflammation by eating predominantly anti-inflammatory foods, as well as adhering to a lifestyle with high-quality sleep, better stress management, and regular exercise.

2. Gluten is inflammatory to everyone.

Unless you have celiac disease or a diagnosed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you likely have zero need to worry about gluten. “In fact, in some cases, removing gluten from your diet may actually cause deficiencies in vital nutrients offered by whole grains, such as B-vitamins, iron, fiber and more,” says Jones. If you tolerate gluten and feel energized after eating it, there's no need to ditch it due to misconception.

If you think you need a change in diet, Jones recommends focusing first on diversifying your grain and starch intake. "Don’t limit yourself to just wheat. Try oats, quinoa, potatoes, corn, barley, or farro to provide for diverse forms of complex carbohydrates in your meals and snacks. This will provide you with a greater variety of nutrients, fiber, and antioxidants,” suggests Jones.

3. Eating nightshade vegetables will increase inflammation.

“Nightshade vegetables provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds, so don't fear tomatoes and eggplants,” says Jones. "They’re often avoided on an anti-inflammatory diet, which is simply not necessary unless you have a thyroid issue and your endocrinologist has specifically recommended limiting nightshade vegetables. Eliminating them unnecessarily can lead to deficiency in certain fibers that feed gut bacteria and phytochemical antioxidants that fight cell damage and excess inflammation.” TL; DR: Restricting nightshades can backfire.

4. Eating low-carb offers more anti-inflammatory benefits.

Carbohydrates are a super important (read: the main) source of energy for most people. Cutting carbs also means reducing your intake of plant foods, which support your gut and cardiovascular system, including starchy vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and fruits.

“All of these sources of carbs provide fiber and other fermentable carbohydrates that essentially ‘feed’ the bacteria in your lower digestive tract, and the more diverse and rich your diet is in whole plant foods, the more diverse your gut bacteria is,” says Jones. “A diverse microbiome is associated with better immune function, nutrient absorption, digestion, mental health, and of course, inflammatory responses,” Jones adds.

5. All sweet foods cause inflammation and spike blood sugar.

Not all sweet foods, particularly fruit in its natural form, will lead to a spike in blood sugar (unless you have diabetes) or excess inflammation. In fact, when paired with healthy fat, protein, and/or fiber, blood sugar tends to remain balanced and stable. “When eaten alone and regularly, foods with excess added sugar or starch that lack fiber will be absorbed quickly, leading to a faster rise in blood sugar than intended,” explains Jones. “This can lead to a more dramatic insulin response and the sugar crash you hear about, which then triggers the release of stress hormones, like epinephrine and cortisol, as well as inflammation."

To keep your blood sugar well-balanced, try adding protein and a vegetable source to pastas and grains, or top a scoop of ice cream with a serving of pistachios. And while most fruits contain fiber, which helps slow absorption, but there's no harm in pairing your apple slices with almond butter or serving your blueberries with a scoop of Greek yogurt to up the protein and fat, which makes your snack more well-rounded.

6. Plant-based omega-3 foods have the most anti-inflammatory benefits.

While plant foods such as chia seeds, flax seeds, and walnuts contain omega-3 fatty acids, their source is in the form of ALA, as opposed to EPA, which is found in animal-based foods. “ALA is great, but it's actually EPA that works more on balancing inflammation in the body. And while some ALA can get converted to EPA, the best way to ensure you're getting enough is eating at least two three-to-four-ounce servings of fatty fish weekly, and more if you have a high activity level or high risk of heart disease,” says Jones. “Salmon is relatively low in mercury compared to many other fish, and chunk light canned tuna is as well.”

7. Following an anti-inflammatory diet means cutting a lot of foods out.

The list of foods that are anti-inflammatory is actually longer than the foods and factors causing inflammation, but most people approach the diet with a plan to cut foods out. Not necessarily. While excessive amounts of added sugar, trans fats, and alcohol can cause inflammation and should be minimized, apart from that, the dietitians recommend going in with the mindset of addition, rather than restriction.

“Think of foods to add more of to your diet,” says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin, MS, RDN, CSO, owner of Champagne Nutrition and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep and How to Eat to Beat Disease Cookbook. For instance, add a serving of fruits and veggies to all meals, incorporate more beans and whole grains to your dishes, and finish everything with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.

Find many more anti-inflammatory foods to stock up on in this video:

8. Soy causes inflammation and should be avoided.

“There are so many ongoing myths about this, but it's simply not true: Soy is an incredibly nutrient-rich, anti-inflammatory food that many people are missing out on,” says Hultin. The fix here is easy—include more soy foods in your diet, and choose ones that you like best.

There’s a wide variety, all of which taste and feel different on the tongue. “Tofu, tempeh, miso, and edamame are all sources that are versatile and delicious ingredients to play around with in the kitchen,” says Hultin.

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