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What is an Anti-inflammatory Diet?
Some people with endometriosis choose to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, so what exactly is that? Abby Langer is one of my favorite sources of quality info on nutrition, and she has an article on her website called Does the anti-inflammatory diet really exist? It’s in response to a graphic Harvard put up stating that certain foods are anti-inflammatory and others are pro-inflammatory. My understanding of this article is that it’s more about diet and lifestyle pattern than one specific food or another. Abby Langer says in this article:
“What most dietitians and scientists believe to be true is that overall diet – not individual foods – plus good genetics and lifestyle, may predict how much or how little inflammation you have in your body. It’s not that you shouldn’t believe that certain foods may be beneficial. It’s that you should avoid drilling what you eat down into single foods or nutrients.”
Registered dietitian Adrian Chavez, PHD, is also a great resource for dietary guidance. He said on a recent Instagram post:
“Inflammation is a normal process in our body and we can’t eliminate all inflammation. Every food that we eat technically drives some level of inflammatory response when it’s broken down and used for fuel. Diet can contribute to higher levels of inflammation but that depends on a number of factors like overall dietary pattern, total energy consumption, individual immune responses to specific foods. That’s why labeling a food as ‘inflammatory’ makes absolutely no sense.”
A diet high in plants, healthy fats, whole grains, legumes, and fruits, and low in ultra-processed foods and refined carbs is generally considered anti-inflammatory. But the specific foods one eats on this eating pattern will be different to each individual. There are many websites, books, and recipes out there available on eating in an anti-inflammatory way for endometriosis. These can be a great source of meal ideas for people, but remember that there is no “correct way” to eat with endometriosis.
Diet culture and demonizing foods
Many people want a list of foods they should eat and should avoid, but no one can tell us that. Unfortunately, diet culture often tells us what is “healthy” or “good” or “bad” for us, but in reality, all foods can be part of a balanced nutrient dense diet because it’s about our overall eating pattern. It’s about what we do consistently: if consistently we are eating nutrient dense foods, but we also eat a serving of desert once a day, then that can still be an overall nutritious diet!
Diet culture has brainwashed us to think this isn’t true because it’s demonized so many foods as “poison”. But we shouldn’t be labeling food as “toxic”, “unclean”, “poison” etc. Some foods that have been incorrectly villianized by diet culture are seed oils, gluten, carbs, dairy, and more.
It’s already hard to eat with chronic illness because many of us have nausea, diarrhea, constipation, pain after eating, and individual food intolerances. So we might already be struggling to eat, and then diet culture incorrectly terrifies us from eating various food groups, and that combo can make it even harder or actually impossible to find something to eat! Even with foods that we know we shouldn’t base our diets on, such as ultra-processed foods, we can still include as part of an overall balanced, nutrient dense diet. Our health is not going to crumble before our eyes if we occasionally have some cookies or a bag of chips!
Understanding this is vital because it allows for flexibility, gives us permission to enjoy food, and takes the onus off us to meet some made up impossible standard of perfection around eating which only leads to shame and guilt!
Conversely, there are many foods that are nutrient dense, so we don’t need to force ourselves to eat some “superfood” or food deemed as “healthy”, “anti-inflammatory” or “clean” that we don’t like but we think we have to for our health. (“Clean” food also means nothing – this is a wellness culture term.)
What should we eat?
Again, this is individual as there is no correct way to eat with endometriosis (or in general). We should look at the whole picture:
- Are we eating enough?
- Is the food providing us with enough nutrients?
- Are we physically and emotionally satisfied with the majority of our meals?
- Are certain foods causing us symptoms?
- Do we have disordered eating?
- Is our way of eating sustainable?
There’s many ways to have a nourishing diet.
I cannot recommend enough the book Good Food, Bad Diet by registered dietitian Abby Langer. It completely rejects diet culture and gives loose guidelines for nutrition and variety that is affordable, accessible, and makes sense. She has an entire section to help us explore our core beliefs around food and chapters on carbs, fats, proteins, beverages, etc.
I particularly loved Abby’s ideas on what she calls high value eating [Source: Good Food, Bad Diet by Abby Langer]:
“High value eating means eating a diet of food that nourishes, not only physically, but emotionally. It satisfies you and makes you happy, and has a zero tolerance for guilt and shame. Instead, high-value eating honors our most primal instinct: to feed ourselves, to gather around food, and to find pleasure in flavor and taste.
A high value meal is satisfying, and it often contains proteins, healthy fats, fiber, and plants. Not always, though: some high value meals contain Oreo cookies and pizza. That’s because high-value eating doesn’t operate from a place of restriction; instead it adds food to your diet and recognizes that some foods may not be the most physically nourishing, but still bring us joy.
I truly believe that we don’t have to stop eating any certain type of food in order to be healthy. When we restrict we just fall hard eventually. So these foods can be consumed responsibly, but are not excluded from our routines. No food is excluded. High value eating doesn’t count calories or macros, or assign labels to food like clean or good. It spits in the face of diet culture and rejects all of its principles. So there!”
(Note that she does say that if you have a medical condition, your doctor or allergist may have recommended cutting out certain foods).
I love her focus on balance and the complete rejection of diet culture. These are some loose guidelines that I’ve understand from following her as well as other registered dietitians (keep in mind this is my understanding and I’m not a dietician. I recommend you directly check out the content of registered dieticians).
-To eat whole or minimally processed foods over ultra-processed foods as much as possible. Whole foods are foods in their original natural form like fruits and vegetables, fresh or frozen.
Minimally processed foods have been altered lightly, like hummus, nuts, dairy, canned tuna. Meats/fish, eggs, beans, seeds, spices, herbs, and whole grains are considered whole or minimally processed.
Ultra processed foods have been completely altered from their original ingredients and often have additives (added sugars, fats, flavorings, preservatives, colors, texturizers etc), such as deli meat, crackers, packaged soups, soft drinks, sweetened breakfast cereals, and microwavable meals. Have ultra-processed foods as little as possible, but you don’t need to eliminate them entirely or demonize them.
-Base your meals on protein and plants. Eat a protein source at each meal whenever possible. Eat a wide variety of plant foods.
-Choose whole grains carbs over refined carbs as much as possible. Look for products with a 100% whole-grain on the packaging. Whole grains should be first or second on the ingredients list.
-Eat enough fiber, which is found in foods like vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, beans, and whole grains.
What we eat varies depending on our access to food, our budget, our community, our culture, our religion, our preferences, and so much more. Whether we are omnivorous or vegan, whether we follow a Mediterranean diet or a Mexican diet (or any other way of eating), there’s so many ways to have a nutritious and balanced diet, which can include the foods that we love and that are important to our culture. Our way of eating doesn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold that’s often presented to us by social media. We don’t have to have these diet culture wars about “This is the best way to eat!” “No this is!” Eat lots of plants, but also go ahead and eat deserts and ultra-processed foods occasionally too – don’t build your diet around them, but don’t be scared of them either. This is also going to help us feel emotionally nourished and not deprived, which can help repair our relationship with food as well as sustain our way of eating.
Flexibility is important
Not every meal is going to be nourishing or have vegetables or protein in it. Sometimes we might just be trying to have a warm meal to fill our bellies. Sometimes we’re just trying to eat anything that we can keep down because we’re so nauseous. Sometimes we are going to eat to celebrate, enjoy ourselves, or soothe our feelings.
The overall goal is to eat in a way that serves our body and helps us feel our best.