Do pro-inflammatory diets harm our health? And can anti-inflammatory diets help?

Our emerging understanding of the role of inflammation in major chronic diseases has brought much attention to the effect of diet on the inflammatory process. Understanding the link may help us identify specific dietary patterns and foods than can diminish chronic inflammation and improve health.

Inflammation: Helpful, harmful, or both?

There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the body’s protective response to an injury or infection. For example, acute inflammation occurs when you cut your finger. Your body dispatches white blood cells to protect the area. You may see some swelling and redness and feel pain, but this process is critical to preventing infection.

Chronic inflammation may be triggered when the body tries to rid itself of harmful substances such as toxins from smoking. Increased levels of chronic inflammation are also associated with excess fat, especially around the abdomen.

Low-grade chronic inflammation may damage blood vessels, arteries, nerves, and the intestines. It can eventually lead to chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, and some diseases of the bowel.

Can diet impact chronic inflammation?

Looking at markers of inflammation such as C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF- α), researchers have found that diet can influence inflammation. There is also a great deal of evidence showing that diet impacts the risk of chronic disease, including heart disease and diabetes. Is inflammation the means by which diet influences disease risk?

Pro-inflammatory diets may increase risk of cardiovascular disease

A recent study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (JACC) examined whether pro-inflammatory diets are associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). (CVD includes non-fatal and fatal heart attack, and fatal and non-fatal stroke.) The researchers assessed the diets of more than 200,000 women and men enrolled in the Nurses’ Health Study, the Nurses’ Health Study II, and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study. The study participants had filled out food frequency questionnaires every four years for up to 32 years.

Results showed that those consuming the most pro-inflammatory diets had a 38% higher risk of developing CVD compared to those consuming the most anti-inflammatory diets. The associations were consistent in men and women, and remained significant even when other lifestyle factors and other potential contributors to inflammation such as obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol were taken into consideration.

This study also showed that pro-inflammatory diets were associated with a poor cholesterol profile. This finding was also seen in other another study, also published in JACC, which found that pro-inflammatory foods had a harmful effect on cholesterol levels while some anti-inflammatory foods had favorable effects.

What foods are pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory?

Foods with a higher pro-inflammatory potential are red meat, processed meat, and organ meat; refined carbohydrates such as white bread, white rice, and many desserts; and sweetened beverages including colas and sports drinks.

Foods that have a higher anti-inflammatory potential are green leafy vegetables like kale, collard greens, and spinach; dark yellow vegetables such as winter and summer squash and yellow peppers; whole grains such as wheat berries, quinoa, whole-grain bread, and oatmeal; and fruits, tea, coffee, and wine. These foods contain specific anti-inflammatory compounds such as carotenoids, flavonoids, vitamins, and fiber.

The recent JACC study findings are consistent with other research that identifies certain dietary patterns that are associated with lower inflammation and reduced risk of CVD. These include the Mediterranean diet, which emphasizes many anti-inflammatory foods and limits pro-inflammatory foods such as red meat and refined carbohydrates.

The bottom line: limit pro-inflammatory foods and eat more anti-inflammatory foods

The data suggest a prudent approach of both limiting pro-inflammatory foods and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet may provide an effective strategy for CVD prevention.

Below are some practical ways to get more anti-inflammatory foods in your diet.

Anti-inflammatory foods
Category Foods Tips to get more in your diet
Fiber ·       Fruits and vegetables

·       Beans, nuts, and seeds

·       Packaged foods containing more than 5 grams of fiber per serving

·       Replace refined grains with whole-grain options like brown rice and whole wheat

·       Eat high-fiber snacks like berries, apples, or carrots with hummus

·       Fill half your dinner plate with veggies

Phytonutrients ·       Red, orange, and yellow vegetables and fruit

·       Dark green leafy veggies like kale

·       Spices: turmeric, curcumin, peppers, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, onions, etc.

·       Green tea and black coffee

·       Fruits and veggies rich in flavor (especially bitter flavors), aroma, or color often have more phytonutrients

·       Try not to peel your fruits and veggies

·       Use many different spices when preparing meals

·       Shorten length of cooking time and limit pre-soaking of fruits and veggies

Healthy fats ·       Mono-unsaturated fatty acids (olive oil, canola oil, sesame oil

·       Omega-3 fatty acids (fatty fish like salmon and mackerel)

·       Flaxseeds and walnuts

·       Eat walnuts for a mid-morning or afternoon snack

·       Use olive oil as salad dressing and when sautéing vegetables

·       Sprinkle whole flaxseed or flax powder in oatmeal, cereal, or smoothies

Source: Department of Nutrition, Brigham and Women’s Hospital

Related Information: Fighting Inflammation


  1. Dr.Jarubula Hanumantha Rao

    Very INFORMATIVE. Useful to ALL of US.

  2. Gary McEachern

    What about grapeseed oil? I have seen articles suggest that this should be at the top of the list for healthy oils.

  3. Cynthia Basinait

    This is a great article! Thank you. It is so important for our doctors to consider our diet as first line of defense in treating what ails us. My husband is slender, strong and works out regularly, but has suffered for years with arthritis and elevated PSA together with the issues that come with a high PSA. So, 2 years ago, he started studying how nutrition effects these things and found a lot of reading on low-inflammatory diets out there – Starting with Dr. Mark Hyman’s book, “Food! What the Heck Should I Eat?” We are also applying these principles to my nutritional plan to reduce my inflammatory bowel disease. It is really working for both of us! Doctors need to learn the importance of this in medical school, so great job Harvard Medical School!

  4. Margaret E Head

    Thank you for this information. Does iodine help RA? I have been trying to eat the right foods but now see I am missing some of the good options. I am 95 yrs old with RA of the diaphragm. This has caused asthma. Again thank you for the help!

  5. Hans

    Nice article. About pro inflammatory foods, I have always read, that Omega 6, is a powerful pro inflammatory and most nuts and seeds, are incredible loaded with Omega 6. Also oils extracted from corn and other seeds, do so. Not to mention peanut whose oil is about 99% Omega 6. On the other hand, Omega 3 is an anti inflammatory fat. Western diets are incredible rich in Omega 6 and poor in Omega 3 consumption.
    Exceptions to these Omega 6 loaded fats and seeds are, Flaxseed and a still little known in North America, peruvian nut called Inka nut, wich oil is up to 53% Omega 3.
    It would be very welcomed, ir someone can confirm the information I have, about the inflammatory effect of Omega 6 oils

  6. lisa tylor

    very nice post, I really loved it , appreciate the article you have posted.The data suggest a prudent approach of both limiting pro-inflammatory foods and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet may provide an effective strategy for CVD prevention

  7. Susie Su

    Interesting topic and information. My mom used to warm me not to eat shrimps if I’m waiting for a wound to heal, mangoes or sweet rice made her joints hurt and that I should stay away from them. I never quite understood the scientific reason of it. After reading your research article, I understand more and will pay more attention to what feed the family. I like the table and tips, concise and not overly generalized that would make me think I know I know and put it down and not reading it. Glad to see my favorite tea and coffee make the good list! Do you know what causes the bitter taste in vegetables like in kale, collard greens, and broccoli? I was taught in my family I should blanch those vegetables to get rid of some sort of “toxins” in them before I cook them. But again, I don’t exactly what. Maybe someone can look into some good vegetables and bad vegetables?

  8. Clark

    Thank you!

  9. steve Buss

    If Meat is pro inflammatory then why do people who go on 100% carnivore diets Inflammation markers go down ?

  10. Zach

    Red meat is not inflammatory. It is consumed mostly in fast food restaurants with bread, fries and colas which are inflammatory. So epidemiological study find these people more unhealthy. If you eat grass fed steak with salad that is different story.

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