INFLAMMATION IS A BUZZWORD these days. You’ve probably heard that inflammation is linked to certain illnesses, like joint pain, depression, or heart disease, or that what you eat can increase or decrease inflammation in your body.

Inflammation isn’t always a bad thing, though. When you cut your finger, for example, your immune system rallies by sending out inflammatory cells to the injured area to start the healing process, triggering pain, swelling, and redness in the meantime. This is called “acute” (or short-term) inflammation, according to Harvard Medical School.

The real problem occurs when the immune system keeps sending inflammatory cells throughout the body, even when there are no outside threats. For example, people who have arthritis experience chronic (or long-term) inflammation in the joint tissues, which, over time, can damage the joints.

Chronic inflammation can play a role in causing or worsening diseases like heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and depression, among others.

What causes all this long-term inflammation? It can be diseases, pollution, and lifestyle habits. That’s where an anti-inflammatory diet comes in.

“The tricky thing with the anti-inflammatory diet is that there is not one standard, accepted definition,” says Caroline Cederquist, M.D., chief medical officer at bistroMD and a board-certified physician in family, obesity, and functional medicine. “Depending on the person, different foods will leave them feeling inflamed.”

So, what foods can potentially trigger inflammation, and which ones counter it? Here’s a look at how an anti-inflammatory diet works, and what you should and shouldn’t eat.

What Foods Can Trigger Inflammation?

Processed foods that are high in sugar, salt, and certain fats are more likely to trigger inflammation, Dr. Cederquist says.

“From there, you can go deeper and deeper depending on what is inflammatory for you,” she explains.

Some people say meat is inflammatory for them and opt to go vegan or vegetarian. Others may not tolerate lactose and avoid dairy.

Celebrities, like Tom Brady, claim that nightshade vegetables, including tomatoes, bell peppers, or eggplants, trigger inflammation. These vegetables contain lectins, proteins known as “anti-nutrients” because they might block the absorption of some nutrients, but the hype has been overblown.

The truth is, “There’s absolutely no science to show that the nightshade family has any impact on inflammation,” says Leslie Bonci, R.D., M.P.H., a nutrition consultant for the Kansas City Chiefs. In fact, she says, “All of these foods have phytonutrients that are anti-inflammatory.”

What Can You Eat on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet?

An anti-inflammatory diet should mainly consist of plants and some fatty fish.

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Plant foods are not only high in antioxidants, but they also contain compounds called flavonoids, which can help block the release of certain inflammatory cells, according to a 2016 review.

Fatty fish, like salmon, herring, and bluefin tuna, is full of omega-3 fatty acids, which, according to research published in the journal PLOS ONE, have been shown to lower the levels of three markers of inflammation of the blood: CRP (C-reactive protein), IL-6 (interleukin-6), and TNF-a (tumor necrosis factor-alpha).

Some studies also show that foods like tart cherry juice and tart cherries, as well as ginger root, turmeric, and saffron, can have an anti-inflammatory effect, Bonci says.

What You Can’t Eat on an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

Research shows that “the only foods that might provoke inflammation are copious amounts of sugar and trans fat,” Bonci says.

There’s no good science showing that eating dairy, meat, or gluten (unless you have celiac disease) specifically triggers inflammation, Bonci says.

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

The benefits of a diet consisting mainly of plant-based foods and fatty fish and few processed foods are pretty self-explanatory. Even so, some research has confirmed many of them.

For example, one 2018 study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that people who ate an anti-inflammatory diet were more likely to live longer than those who didn’t.

Other research has found that those who ate more pro-inflammatory diets had a higher risk of heart disease. There’s even some evidence showing that an anti-inflammatory diet can help manage conditions like arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.

Chronic inflammation has also been linked to pain, bloating, and headaches, Dr. Cederquist says.

Overall, an anti-inflammatory diet can increase longevity, she says. “When your body is in a chronic state of inflammation, fighting off diseases becomes harder.”

How to Follow An Anti-Inflammatory Diet

There’s no set “anti-inflammatory diet,” Dr. Cederquist says. It’s about focusing on whole, plant-based foods as well as fatty fish.

man standing happiness on the kitchen and preparing food

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But, the Mediterranean diet is a good example of what it might look like. That means filling up on whole grains, beans, legumes, vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil, fish, and poultry.

(One word of caution: Alcohol can cause inflammation, so you may want to shelve the vino, says Bonci.)

Think beyond Italy and Greece—and bowls of pasta. Look to countries like Morocco, Egypt, and Turkey, and try to eat more turmeric, saffron, and za’atar.

Unless you have an allergy or sensitivity or choose to avoid animal products, there’s also no reason to necessarily avoid foods like whey protein, milk, chicken, or eggs—especially if you’re currently injured or experiencing inflammation, Bonci says.

Eating enough protein and calories while you’re experiencing inflammation will help “minimize the pain, but maximize your gains,” she says.

Do Anti-Inflammatory Diets Work?

“For sure,” Dr. Cederquist says. “Basically, if you have reactions to a specific food group—like lectins, lactose, or soy—if you eat these foods, you will feel inflamed, and you won’t feel good.”

Many studies have illustrated the benefits of a diet low in processed foods, she adds. So, cutting out these items will likely make you feel better, and reduce your risk for health conditions, like heart disease and cancer.

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Headshot of Maria Masters

Maria Masters is a contributing editor and writer for Everyday Health and What to Expect, and has held positions at Men’s Health and Family Circle. 

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Erica Sweeney is a writer who mostly covers health, wellness and careers. She has written for The New York Times, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, Parade, Money, Business Insider and many more.