By: Lacey Dunn
The Anti-inflammatory diet is gaining attention recently with its benefits of decreasing the risk of chronic disease, pain, and reducing inflammation in the body. In the realm of exercise and fitness however, “anti-inflammatory” seems to contradict the goals of working out, where inflammation is an essential part of recovery and muscle growth. Does “anti-inflammatory” indicate “anti-hypertrophy”? Let’s explore what the anti-inflammatory diet is, the scientific evidence backing it, what health benefits it can contribute, and how it relates to your fitness and physique goals!
First, let’s describe what inflammation is. Inflammation is how our bodies react to stress, injury, and infection. When we fall and cut ourselves or pull a muscle, inflammation works to signal cells to repair and heal themselves. This is our bodies natural immune response. In the case of exercise, the body’s inflammation levels increase due to tissue damage and acute stress. When lifting weights, we break down our muscle fibers, which activates cells that release cytokines to begin the process of repair and muscle growth. This is called acute inflammation, and is crucial to growth and recovery! Acute inflammation is short lived, however chronic inflammation may last for months or years, and can lead to a multitude of chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and a variety of cancers. The development of chronic diseases will not only stop you from being able to work out to your best abilities, put could cause detrimental health effects as well.
In general, the diet consists of a high intake of fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, rich sources of omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, and the additional of a variety of spices including ginger and curry. It minimizes red meat, full fat dairy consumption, processed foods, saturated and trans fats, and alcohol. The anti-inflammatory diet works to increase the amounts of antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals in the diet, while decreasing the potential inflammatory effects seen in various foods such as sugar and red meat.
What kind of foods are involved in the diet that include beneficial anti-inflammatory properties? It’s not the foods themselves, but the nutrients within: antioxidants, phytonutrients, and tocopherols. Foods rich in antioxidants include: fruits such as berries, apples, green tea, dark chocolate, and spinach. Vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, kale, and cauliflower also are recommended cruciferous vegetables that aid in reducing inflammation and oxidative stress (Jiang et. al 2014). A key part of the diet also involves consuming quality sources of omega-3 fatty acids that can be found in foods such as eggs, various fish such as salmon, flaxseeds, and walnuts. Omega-3’s function as eicosanoids, which serve as mediators and precursors to prostaglandins, thromboxanes, and leukotrienes. They are rapidly metabolized and utilized in cells and work in inflammation modification, cell growth, vasocontraction and dilation, and platelet aggregation. These fatty acids have shown to reduce inflammatory molecules such as TNF-alpha and C-reactive protein. Some variations of the diet recommend to decrease omega-6 fatty acid intake due to being pro-inflammatory, however though eicosanoids from omega-6 fatty acids (found in flax oil, primrose oil, soy, grapeseed oil, chia seeds) are pro-inflammatory, they can have anti-inflammatory effects (Vannice 2014). It’s also important to note that the body does not convert omega-6’s well to these inflammatory eicosanoids, so a balanced diet of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids is suggested.
In addition to whole foods, the anti-inflammatory diet also includes the use of various botanicals, spices, and herbs such as ginger, turmeric, garlic, and bromelain. Many have been shown to help in reducing inflammation by reducing inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein, IL-6 and TNF-alpha. Ginger inhibits prostaglandin biosynthesis and reduces tumor growth. A study by Altman and Marcuseen, 2001, provided evidence that ginger can be used to help reduce pain from arthritis. Joint pain can be seen in many athletes and weight-lifters, so ginger would be a potential addition if you struggle with joint pain. Garlic inhibits the activity of enzymes such as cyclooxygenase and lipoxygenase, which lead to inflammation in the body and bromelain has also provided evidence for its ability to reduce inflammation. Though many studies show the positive effects of these supplements and botanicals on inflammatory markers, studies are inconclusive on their attributions to chronic inflammation and chronic disease risk reduction.
The diet minimizes foods that may lead to increased chronic inflammation, such as red meats and refined grains. Red meats include high amounts of carcinogenic compounds, depending on how they are cooked, which can contribute to the development of various cancers. It also focuses on the elimination of refined and processed carbohydrates. Though refined carbs have been shown to increase inflammation and have been linked to obesity, it must be noted that these effects have been shown in studies where their consumption contributes to excess calories. No studies have proven the effects of refined carbs and sugars on a controlled caloric diet. There is also limited evidence on the effect of saturated fats on inflammation, however, a diet low in saturated fat (less than <7% daily) is suggested for the reduction of CVD risk.
You may be thinking “How does the anti-Inflammatory diet come into play with exercise and building muscle?” Well, we want acute inflammation for recovery and muscle growth, but we don’t want chronic inflammation. Muscle damage and oxidative stress following exercise is necessary for promoting muscle gains, but managing DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) through anti-inflammatory diet protocols can enhance recovery, allowing increased long term performance. Chronic inflammation not only leads to a variety of diseases, pain, and insulin resistance, but can potentially lead to decreased muscle strength and loss of lean muscle tissue. As we age and our bodies naturally start to lose muscle mass, this can be highly detrimental! The anti-inflammatory diet works to control and monitor chronic inflammation, not suppress acute inflammation. Meaning, it’s effects are not to reduce the muscle swelling from a beast lift session, but to prevent the potential symptoms and nutritional factors that lead to chronic inflammation and the diseases associated with it.
In a study that tested the body composition, metabolic, and muscular effects of an inflammatory reducing supplement, Diafin, in combination with a full-body resistance training program, supplementation led to increased strength gains, promoted weight loss, improved total and LDL cholesterol, and decreased circulating leptin levels in participants (McKinley-Barnard et al. 2015). However, another study testing the effects of antioxidant supplementation on blood oxidative stress markers found no significant evidence to it being beneficial (Bloomer et al. 2007). Discrepancies in findings on anti-inflammatory nutrients and supplements may be due to type of study, controls, timing of supplementation, and training level of participants. There is also inconclusive evidence to its effect on exercise performance and muscular adaptations.
Worried about its effects on your gains? Utilizing the anti-inflammatory diet and manipulating anti-inflammatory ingredients away from your workouts may ease your mind. However, the positives of incorporating them for recovery and long term health far exceed its questionable effects on hypertrophy. To get the anti-inflammatory effects without hurting your gains, consume anti-inflammatory foods and nutrients away from your workouts, specifically post workout where inflammation is essential.
More research needs to be done in regards to muscle growth and body composition using anti-inflammatory protocols, and though there are many benefits to doing the anti-inflammatory diet, there are no clinical studies proving its effectiveness for chronic disease reduction compared to a normal healthy, balanced diet! My suggestion- follow a balanced diet full of essential vitamins and minerals, a mix of various healthy fats, lean proteins, and nutrient dense grains! There is no need to cut food groups unless food intolerances are present. Focus on a variety of different foods and aim for choices high in essential vitamins and minerals in order to get the most benefits for overall health. Work anti-inflammatory foods INTO your diet, not just making them your only diet.
Anti-Inflammatory Diet References:
Marcason, W. What is the anti-inflammatory diet? J. Am. Diet. Assoc. 2010, 110, 1780.
Jiang Y, Wu SH, Shu XO, Xiang YB, Ji BT, Milne GL, Cai Q, Zhang X, Gao YT, Zheng W, et al. Cruciferous vegetable intake is inversely correlated with circulating levels of proinflammatory markers in women. J Acad Nutr Diet 2014;114:700–8, e2.
Vannice G, Rasmussen H. 2014. Position of the academy of nutrition and dietetics: dietary fatty acids for healthy adults. J Acad Nutr Diet. 114:136–153.
McKinley-Barnard et al.: The effects of a botanical anti- inflammatory nutritional supplement while participating in a resistance training program on indices of body composition and metabolic, cardiovascular, muscular, and hemodynamic function in obese females. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2015 12(Suppl 1):P40. https://jissn.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1550-2783-12-S1-P40
Altman & Marcussen, (2001). Effects of a ginger extract on knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis, Arthritis and Rheumatism, 44(11), 2531-2538.
Nassar, Erika, Jen Morellion, Geoffrey Hudson, Brian Shelmadine, Julie Culbertson, Thomas Buford, Richard Kreider, and Darryn Willoughby. “Effects of Ingesting a Thermogenic/anti-inflammatory Supplement While Participating in a Resistance Training Program on Indices of Body Composition and Metabolic, Cardiovascular, Muscular, and Hemodynamic Function in Overweight Females.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 5.Suppl 1 (2008): n. pag. Web.
Bloomer, Richard J., Michael J. Falvo, Brian K. Schilling, and Webb A. Smith. “Prior Exercise and Antioxidant Supplementation: Effect on Oxidative Stress and Muscle Injury.” Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 4.1 (2007): 9. Web.
Khan TA, Sievenpiper JL. Controversies about sugars: results from systematic reviews and meta-analyses on obesity, cardiometabolic disease and diabetes. European Journal of Nutrition. 2016;55(Suppl 2):25-43. doi:10.1007/s00394-016-1345-3.