What is an ‘anti-inflammatory’ diet?
If you have an autoimmune disease or any type of chronic inflammation and are curious about the role of nutrition, you may have heard the buzzwords “anti-inflammatory”, “Paleo”, “AIP”, “Keto”, and “Plant-based” diets floating around recently.
So, what is all the hype about, and can these diets actually reduce inflammation and symptoms associated with autoimmunity?
The answer is often, YES, but it depends on your individuality!
While different, these diets include similar principles that work to reduce inflammation and support the immune system.
What do these ‘diets’ have in common?
In general, an anti-inflammatory nutrition plan includes:
- Eating whole, unprocessed foods
- Increasing fibre (aka fruits/veggies and whole grains)
- Increasing intake of fermented foods (i.e. sauerkraut, kimchi, miso, tempeh)
- Incorporating quality sources of protein (grass-fed/organic/pasture-raised meat, and organic legumes)
- Reducing sugar
- Avoiding damaged fats (aka trans fats, highly heated vegetable oils)
- Increasing quality fat intake from omega 3’s
- Testing for gluten and dairy sensitivity
- Reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption
- Addressing individual food sensitivities, often through some type of elimination protocol
So, what’s the difference?
It really comes down to details:
- Paleo refers to a diet that imitates that eaten by our paleolithic ancestors. As an former archaeologist and current nutritionist, I know this assumption to be largely unproven because it’s fairly difficult to assess ancient dietary patterns. Nevertheless, this diet focuses on quality animal protein and fibre-rich foods including vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds. It advocates for avoiding processed food, grains, dairy, and legumes – foods that supposedly would not have been available in paleolithic times. While not prehistorically accurate, nutritionally speaking, it can be a useful therapeutic protocol for decreasing inflammation.
- AIP (Autoimmune Paleo) refers to a stricter version of the above. It restricts eggs, nightshades (tomatoes, peppers, etc.), all sugar, and oils (aside from avocado, coconut, and olive), which are thought to contribute to an inflammatory response. This is used for autoimmune disease and has recently been studied in the scientific literature for inflammatory bowel disease with strikingly positive results. Studies are also underway to test a version of this diet for multiple sclerosis, using the Wahl’s protocol.
- Keto refers a high fat/low carb diet. It requires 70%+ of dietary intake to come from quality sources of fat and restricts carbohydrate intake to 20-50 g per day, which is very difficult to maintain. Starchy carbs are not allowed (i.e. grains, sugar, fruit). This diet changes the body’s natural reliance on carbs as the primary source of energy to reliance on fat for energy, resulting in a state of ketosis. Generally, this diet is useful for epilepsy and blood-sugar stabilization, but can be dangerous if not monitored correctly.
- Plant-based refers to a diet derived from plants, with few or no animal products. The majority of protein comes from grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, and soy. It advocates for avoiding processed food, refined sugar, and sometimes oils, due to processing. This type of diet has been studied specifically in autoimmune arthritis, with positive results.
- Anti-inflammatory can really be used to define any of the above. It’s used to refer to a predominantly whole-foods diet that encourages the elimination of common inflammatory foods such as gluten, dairy, nightshades, sugar, and processed foods. See my recent blog post where I discuss new research on an anti-inflammatory diet and arthritis.
Knowing this, how do you figure out which diet could be right for you?
That’s a more difficult question to answer. In reality, it depends on multiple factors:
- Food preferences
- Whether or not you consume animal products.
- Current health situation
- The usefulness of the above diets depend on the current state of your gut health and digestive function.
- Different autoimmune diseases respond differently to different carb/fat ratios.
- Genetic make-up
- Nutrigenomics – the science of how your genes can determine how well you metabolize carbs, fats, protein. This new field can also indicate if your genes tolerate trigger foods, such as caffeine, gluten, and lactose.
- If this testing isn’t an option for you, as an alternative, try recording how you feel after eating certain foods and creating a log of this information. Our bodies have a lot of information to give us when we take the time to listen.
- *See note on DNA testing below*
- Stress levels
- Stress can impact how well we digest and absorb food.
- Many anti-inflammatory protocols require intense change, which can lead to additional stress. If the thought of implementing major dietary changes causes you a lot of stress, start slow and work up to the changes you would like to make.
- Financial situation
- Following the Paleo Diet and AIP can be slightly more expensive, due to the extra cost required for good quality animal products.
- To offset costs associated with animal protein, you can include more sources of plant-based protein, such as lentils, chickpeas, beans, organic soy, nuts/seeds.
If you’re interested in trying an anti-inflammatory diet, try incorporating different aspects into your lifestyle slowly because…
changing our relationship with food takes time
The more we focus on making the above options part of our lifestyle, the easier it becomes to shift our nutrition preferences.
‘Holistic’ is Important:
Food is important, but we also need to consider the whole body and it’s relationship with food. This is why I don’t like to use the term ‘diet’. A holistic approach to nutrition is important.
Autoimmune conditions affect the immune system, but research is indicating that mood, digestion, fatigue, and multiple other symptoms from chronic disease can affect quality of life.
Here are my top 5 lifestyle tips for living with an autoimmune disease:
- Reduce stress
- Chronic stress is known to suppress immune function and digestive function. See my previous blog post on stress here!
- Get adequate sleep
- The length and timing of sleep can impact inflammation. See my previous blog post on fatigue to learn more!
- Support digestion
- What we eat is important, but how we digest and assimilate nutrients plays a role in how useful our nutrients are. See my previous blog on gut health here!
- Movement is important to support immune function and keep food digesting optimally. Find a type of movement that you enjoy and incorporate changes slowly.
- Develop a support network
- Changing our relationship with food takes time and support. It helps to have a support network in place before making any nutrition or lifestyle changes.
Nutrition works best when combined with a holistic plan that addresses the above lifestyle factors. I talked a lot about lifestyle in my recent Zoom call about supporting the immune system. If you want a free recording of this talk, reach out to me for a copy!
If you’re struggling to determine which nutritional protocol may work best for you, reach out to see how we can work together to identify which protocol would fit best with your lifestyle, preferences, and health journey.
*Note on DNA Testing
I’m now offering DNA testing specifically for nutrition through dnaPower, a Canadian company that specializes in nutrigenomics – the science of how of genes impact our body’s ability to digest and assimilate food. If you’re interesting in this testing, apply to work with me and let’s talk!
p.s. I actually did a internship at this company back when I was in nutrition school and have done the testing myself! I’m also working on a new blog post all about the testing and how it can inform your individualized nutrition plan!