Which Is The Best Inflammation-Fighting Diet? The Definitive Ranking
Vincent Pedre is a New York–based M.D. and the best-selling author of Happy Gut. He’s also one of the lauded instructors in our first-of-its-kind Advanced Functional Nutrition Program, where we bring the best minds in nutrition together to dive deep into the healing power of food. You can find out more about Dr. Pedre, the rest of the faculty (including groundbreaking doctors like Mark Hyman and Frank Lipman) and this revolutionary training here.
Chronic inflammation plays a role in pretty much every disease, making you tired, sick, and fat. The cure to dial down inflammation and lose weight exists at the tip of your fork. It really is that simple—and that complicated. Pretty much every anti-inflammatory diet agrees on a few factors: like eating high-antioxidant foods that combat oxidative stress and inflammation or avoiding processed, sugary foods.
With all the different diets out there promising to lower inflammation, which one is the best for you? Each diet takes a different approach to reducing inflammation and helping you lose weight in the process. Let’s briefly look at the pros and cons of several popular eating plans based on their inflammatory impact.
The components of this diet include fish, olive oil, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and moderate alcohol consumption, and it's been found in multiple studies to be helpful with heart disease. With its emphasis on whole foods rich in antioxidants and fiber as well as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, this plan seems tailor-made to fight inflammation. But researchers in one study argued the Mediterranean diet’s benefits remained exclusive to rich, educated folks. The Mediterranean diet wasn’t designed exclusively for weight loss, and some of its foods might be too high in carbs or otherwise problematic if you’re trying to lose weight. I also wish it emphasized healthy saturated fats like organic coconut oil rather than focusing mostly on mono- and polyunsaturated fats. But as an anti-inflammatory diet, it’s pretty solid.
The Paleo Diet:
A paleo diet mimics what our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate in the wild: mostly whole, anti-inflammatory foods, very low in sugar and devoid of the most common food sensitivities that lead to inflammation, like gluten or dairy. But a paleo diet also allows vast interpretation, and critics note some of its claims are exaggerated. Plus, we’re not 100 percent certain exactly how our hunter-gatherer ancestors ate (it depends on factors like food availability and what region they lived in).
I’ve seen a few paleo-focused clients overconsume animal foods and not enough plant foods. That spells several problems: not enough fiber or antioxidants, too many inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids, and the potential to eat less-than-high-quality animal proteins, which can come with a host of other problems (like hormones). With the diet’s popularity also come numerous fake foods (paleo bread or cookies… really!?) your ancestors most assuredly wouldn’t have hunted, gathered, plucked, or otherwise found in the wild.
On the flip side, a paleo diet focused on whole, unprocessed, anti-inflammatory foods makes an ideal plan to lose weight and feel better. When you do it correctly, predominantly plant-based with animal protein as a complement, going paleo makes a great plan to lower inflammation.
Emphasizing high-fiber, antioxidant-rich plant foods while avoiding conventional animal foods is a surefire way to dial down inflammation. Vegetarian and vegan diets have a lot to commend, and many patients who use them focus on quality, whole, low-glycemic foods. At the same time, I see patients get into trouble with nutrient deficiencies as well as inadequate amounts of protein and healthy fats when following these diets. When they become "carba-tarians" or "carba-vegans," there are sure to be imbalances, along with unwanted weight gain.
Overeating higher-carb plant foods can lead to weight struggles. Ditto for soy, gluten, and other high-sensitivity foods that slip into some vegan and vegetarian plans. And don’t get me started about the ever-expanding array of vegan- and vegetarian-friendly "Frankenfoods," like corn or soy-based vegan "hamburgers," as well as the dangers of genetically modified (GMO) corn, soy, and the growing list of other GMO veggies and fruit.
Even then, you’ve got plenty of anti-inflammatory foods to choose from as a vegan or vegetarian, including nuts and seeds, nonstarchy vegetables, and high-fiber/low-glycemic carbs. Like with any plan, choose organic (non-genetically modified or GMO) foods as much as possible.
A ketogenic diet includes very high amounts of quality fat, moderate amounts of protein, and carbohydrates from low-glycemic sources. Eating this way keeps insulin levels low, which lowers inflammation.
Like with other diets, quality becomes crucial: The emphasis should be on anti-inflammatory fats including wild-caught fish, avocado, grass-fed meats (beef, elk, bison, and lamb), pasture-raised eggs (if you can tolerate them), along with nuts and seeds.
You’ll want to complement these and other high-fat foods with plenty of antioxidant-rich, low-sugar leafy green and cruciferous vegetables. Too often I see people "doing keto" overeating high-fat animal foods and neglecting antioxidant- and fiber-rich plant foods, which can create adverse effects in your gut and overall health. It can lead to microbial imbalances in the gut that hinder weight loss.
Note that keto diets weren’t designed specifically for weight loss, and overeating from animal sources can hold your weight hostage and even increase inflammation. That said, I have seen many patients lose a significant amount of weight on a ketogenic diet.
Just a heads-up: If you discuss this with your doctor or dietitian, he or she might confuse dietary ketosis with ketoacidosis, a truly dangerous and potentially deadly problem associated with type 1 diabetes. Please be assured they are very different things, and for most people dietary ketosis is not dangerous and actually results in many health benefits. That brings me to the last diet style, which is a subset of a ketogenic diet:
I’ve written extensively and (mostly) glowingly about intermittent fasting (IF), and it offers impressive potential to help folks lose weight, lower their disease risk, and decrease inflammation.
You’ll find various forms of IF including alternate-day fasting and fasting 16 to 18 hours daily. They all offer benefits, but what ultimately matters becomes what works for you. If the idea of fasting for 24 hours terrifies you, start with a shorter fast and work your way up.
Regardless of which one you choose, IF does not give you carte blanche to eat whatever you want during your feeding hours. Food sensitivities (I have written about in prior posts), processed sugary foods, and artificial sweeteners are among the inflammatory foods that can undo the effort you put into fasting.
If you want to learn more about inflammation from Dr. Pedre, be sure to check out mbg's new functional nutrition program!