The anti-inflammatory diet created by Andrew Weil, MD, a celebrity doctor and integrative medicine specialist, is no crash diet for weight loss. Instead, it's designed to be a lifelong way of eating focused on whole, nutrient-dense foods that help minimize inflammation in the body.
At its core, the diet is an adaptation of the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Here, we'll dig into the tenets of the anti-inflammatory diet as well as tips for getting started. But first: What do we mean by inflammation?
What Is Inflammation?
Despite its current reputation, inflammation isn't all bad. It's actually part of your body's natural response to infection or injury, according to the Mayo Clinic. When inflammation occurs, white blood cells amp up to defend the body against invaders like viruses and bacteria. But while an acute bout of inflammation is helpful to fight off infection, the body can also produce a low-grade, consistent inflammation that can undermine your health. This chronic inflammation — which might be the result of stress, obesity or a combination of other factors, according to an article in StatPearls from June 2019 — can cause damage to healthy tissues, since the body doesn't have a foreign invader to direct its efforts toward.
Research is beginning to show that chronic inflammation plays a role in diabetes, kidney disease, cancer, heart disease and other serious conditions like arthritis. What's more: When there's a long-term increase in inflammatory cells in the blood, they can promote the buildup of plaque in the arteries, according to the Cleveland Clinic. This additional plaque can cause the arteries to thicken, which increases the risk for heart attack and stroke.
So what's the connection between inflammation and your diet? Although the experts are still unraveling the hows and whys, research has shown that what you eat can affect the levels of C-reactive protein (CRP) — a marker for inflammation — in your blood, according to the Mayo Clinic. Some foods, like processed sugars and refined carbohydrates, seem to encourage the body to release more of these inflammatory messengers, while other foods have the opposite effect.
What Can You Eat on the Anti-Inflammatory Diet?
Dr. Weil's website offers the following guidelines for the anti-inflammatory diet:
When it comes to calories, Dr. Weil suggests most adults consume between 2,000 and 3,000 calories per day. He notes that men and more active people may need more calories, while women and those who are less active may need less. The diet was not designed for weight loss, so these calorie amounts are meant to help followers maintain their weight.
In terms of macronutrient breakdown, the diet suggests getting 40 to 50 percent of calories from carbohydrates, 30 percent from fat and 20 to 30 percent from protein, which is in line with the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. Balancing macronutrients at each meal is recommended.
Dr. Weil recommends getting 30 percent of your daily calories from fat. This breaks down to about 600 calories if you're eating 2,000 calories per day. When following the anti-inflammatory diet, though, the type of fat you're eating is as important as the amount. The diet focuses mainly on consuming monounsaturated fats like extra-virgin olive oil while reducing saturated fat like butter and fatty meats.
Specifically, you should avoid or limit:
- high-fat cheese
- skin-on chicken and fatty meats
- palm kernel oil
- vegetable shortening
- partially hydrogenated oil
You should include:
- extra-virgin olive oil
- nuts and nut butters
- hemp seeds
- flax seeds
- fatty fish like salmon
- a daily fish oil supplement
Dr. Weil recommends reducing animal protein sources — except fish and high-quality cheese and yogurt — and increasing plant-based proteins like beans and soy. It's recommended to consume 80 to 120 grams of protein when eating 2,000 calories per day.
Carbohydrates are not restricted on the anti-inflammatory diet, but refined grains should be limited. Whole grains, beans, winter squash, fruits and veggies are great sources of unrefined carbohydrates. Dr. Weil recommends eating whole-grain pasta in moderation because it is more refined than other whole grains such as brown rice.
Carbohydrates are crucial for sustaining energy on the anti-inflammatory diet as well as providing an excellent source of fiber. You should aim to eat around 40 grams of fiber a day on this plan. Increasing beans, berries, and whole grains will help you hit this number every day.
Choosing Nutrient-Dense Food
Because reducing inflammation is the main goal of this diet, eating a variety of plant-based foods is important. Fruits, veggies and whole grains provide phytonutrients that help our body fight inflammation, according to a September 2014 study in the Journal of Complementary & Integrative Medicine.
Dr. Weil suggests the following to maximize the amount of phytonutrients in your diet:
- Eat the rainbow. Choose fruits and veggies from all parts of the color spectrum. Each color is the result of different phytonutrients in the food. And be sure to eat cruciferous vegetables regularly.
- Drink tea instead of coffee, and opt for white, oolong or green tea.
- Enjoy chocolate in moderation. Just make sure it's dark chocolate that's at least 70 percent cocoa.
- Choose red wine over other types of alcohol, and drink in moderation.
- Opt for organic when possible to avoid pesticide residue.
A Word on Beverages
It's recommend to drink pure water or drinks that are made of mostly water. Drinks like unsweetened tea, diluted fruit juice and sparking water with lemon are great options on this plan. Dr. Weil suggests getting an at-home water purifier if your tap water contains chlorine or other potential contaminants.
How to Get Started
The anti-inflammatory diet doesn't limit calories or food groups, which makes it safe for most people. With that being said, it's always important to check with your doctor before making any dietary changes, to make sure your individual nutritional needs are being met.
Since the diet consists of mainly whole foods that are minimally processed, these are ideally prepared at home and can take considerable time in the kitchen if you're not accustomed to cooking meals regularly. When you're first starting out, it's recommended to start slowly, to ensure you'll stick with it in the long term. Following the anti-inflammatory diet guidelines for three to five meals per week initially is ideal. Gradually increase this amount as you get used to using minimally processed foods as your mainstay.