Friends have been asking about my anti-inflammatory diet. I thought it might be easier to have something to link to and read. It’s making a big difference for me.

About a year ago, I was seeing my primary care provider for a routine checkup. She asked, as part of her standard questions, whether I was in any pain. “I’m always in pain,” I said. My shoulder always, always hurt. She checked my range of motion (quite limited), asked a few more questions, and asked if I’d like to do something to reduce the pain.

“I can’t take anti-inflammatories,” I said. “So I figured I just had to live with it.”

She suggested I had better options. Like a bit of physical therapy, and an anti-inflammatory diet.

I’d never heard of an anti-inflammatory diet, but I don’t like pain. So I was willing to give it a try.

And to my surprise, it started reducing my pain within days. It makes a big difference. And the best thing? The diet doesn’t mean I have to deprive myself. I don’t have to eat less. I don’t have to eat boring stuff, or food I don’t like.

And while the diet isn’t intended as a weight-loss diet, I dropped 10 pounds in the first couple of months I was on it, without trying, and without ever feeling hungry. You don’t expect to lose weight when you’re snacking on pecans and walnuts and fresh fruit, and eating salads drenched in olive oil dressings, and generally enjoying everything you eat. But I did. And I’m still losing. Now, it’s more like a pound every month or two rather than a pound a week. But I think my weight will stabilize somewhere healthy. And that’s the point of this anti-inflammatory diet: Being healthy.

Three Lists

The anti-inflammatory diet is really pretty simple. It consists primarily of three lists, don’t eat, eat lots, and eat in moderation.

The Don’t Eat List

The “don’t eat” list is really short.

  • Wheat
  • Dairy
  • Sugar and other sweeteners (natural or artificial)
  • Refined carbs
  • White potatoes
  • Trans fats

Some people have to add nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants) to the list, but they don’t seem to bother me.

And I’ll have to be honest. This part of the list is hard. Not when I’m eating at home, but it makes eating out, or eating at other people’s homes, really difficult. Because even though there aren’t many foods on the list, these few foods seem to be in everything that’s commercially processed.

The Eat Lots List

This is the fun list. It’s what makes this a “not restrictive” diet. I can eat all I want of these foods. I can eat until I’m satisfied. And they’re all wonderful, delicious foods.

  • All deeply colored fruits and veggies: berries, cherries, peaches, leafy greens, sweet potatoes, winter squash, sweet peppers, tomatoes, melons, mangoes, and nearly anything else in the produce department; apples count as deeply colored, even though they’re not
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Beans
  • Oily fish, like salmon
  • Olive oil
  • Onions, garlic, leeks, and chives
  • Hot peppers
  • Ginger, turmeric, and cinnamon

Any diet where you can make a meal out of salmon with mango salsa, roasted sweet potatoes, and asparagus, with grilled peaches with ginger and cinnamon for dessert – that’s my kind of diet. There’s no deprivation. Just lots of wonderful, wonderful food.

Eat in Moderation

This list is the one that sometimes feels tricky to me. These foods don’t cause a problem when I eat them in limited amounts. If I eat too much of them, though, they’re a real problem. And trying to figure out how much is enough and how much is too much … that’s tricky.

  • Chocolate. At least 70% dark chocolate.
  • Whole grains, except wheat. Enjoy them, but keep it to one or two servings a day. Grains that have undergone minimal cutting or grinding are best. So corn on the cob, coarse ground corn meal, and steel-cut oats are fine. Corn starch and oat flour, not so much. Deeply colored grains, like black or red rice and blue cornmeal, are better than beige grains.
  • Purple and red potatoes. Not red-skinned, but red all the way through. These taste like regular ol’ white potatoes, but whatever makes them purple and red is anti-inflammatory, so they’re allowed in moderation. And purple mashed potatoes are beautiful!
  • Meat. Fish and beans should be the primary protein sources. Limit meat to two or three servings a week. Prefer chicken and turkey to pork and beef.
  • Fats and oils, other than olive oil. Use avocado oil and coconut oil when cooking at higher temperatures than olive oil will tolerate, or when the flavor of olive oil wouldn’t be appropriate for the dish. Do not use margarine, shortening, or any other source of trans fat, ever. And if the oil you’re cooking with starts to smoke, stop. Don’t use it. Getting it too hot creates trans fats.

Making it Work

The lists make the anti-inflammatory diet easy. Except that first list – that short, simple “don’t eat” list. It’s really hard to buy prepared foods that don’t include wheat, dairy, or sugar. Even “healthy” and organic prepared foods usually contain one of the three.

So we do a lot more cooking from scratch. The crock pot is our friend. And we’ve found some substitutes that work for us.

In almost everything that calls for milk, I use canned coconut milk. It’s less processed than the stuff that comes in a carton. (Some of the milk substitutes in cartons contain loads of sugar!)

Instead of pasta and rice, I use one of these:

  • Shredded cabbage, sautéed lightly. This works really well with heavy tomato sauces.
  • Fresh baby spinach leaves. Great with Thai curries!
  • Wild rice or black rice instead of white rice.

You can also try pasta made from lentils. But since they’re pretty highly processed, go easy with them.

To thicken soups and stews, I add a handful of rolled oats at the beginning. It works!

I use blue corn meal instead of regular corn meal for breading fish or making blue cornbread.

Beverages

In the mornings, I like a cup of hot tea with milk and a bit of sugar. My primary care provider said that, if I absolutely had to, I could add a smidge of honey. So that’s what I started doing. It wasn’t great, but it was okay.

At coffee hour at church, though, there wasn’t any honey. Then one Sunday, I noticed that there was apple juice on the kids’ table. I tried a splash in my tea. It was so good! The juice adds just a bit of sweetness and softens the tannins the same way milk does. Don’t go overboard if you try it – fruit juice is in between the “eat in moderation” list and the “don’t eat” list. You lose the fiber, so fruit juice (and juiced fruits and veggies) aren’t part of the “eat lots” list. But a little bit, as a condiment, is okay.

But sugar, as a condiment, is not okay. It provokes a strong insulin response, and as I understand it, that insulin spike drives inflammation. So the anti-inflammatory diet doesn’t include sodas or sweet tea.

It does include water. If you don’t like the taste of plain water (I don’t), you can put herbs and chopped fruit in the bottom of a pitcher, fill the pitcher with water, and put it in the fridge. Or just add a lemon wedge to your glass.

An Anti-Inflammatory Breakfast

Breakfast can be hard. Breakfast foods tend to be mostly refined carbs.

If you like a hot cooked breakfast, try bacon, scrambled eggs, and fried apples. Just wash and slice the apples, and cook them in a skillet with a bit of coconut oil. Add cinnamon and nutmeg (but no sweetener). It’s really good.

Almond flour biscuits with sausage gravy are amazing.

If you’re used to eating a bagel for breakfast, cut an apple in half and cut the core out. Then top it with peanut butter or lox or whatever you like on your bagels. (Except cream cheese, because dairy.)

If you’re used to eating cold cereal and milk for breakfast, try overnight oats. For two servings, put ½ cup of steel cut oats and 2 cups of water in a pan. Bring it to a boil. Boil for one minute. Take it off the heat and put a lid on it. Leave it sit on the back of the stove overnight. In the morning, bring it back to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Simmer about five minutes, until it’s the texture you like. Add sliced strawberries or toasted coconut. Or top the oats with a fried egg!

Sweets

The longer you’re on the anti-inflammatory diet, the less you’ll crave sweets. But sometimes you need something sweet.
Most days, fruit is all the sweet I want or need. A banana, some berries, a slice of melon. They’re all on my “eat lots” list, and they’re wonderful.

A small piece of dark chocolate is also wonderful.

But sometimes you want a real dessert. I’ve found three that work for me.

First and easiest is grilled fruit. You can even fancy it up, like these grilled banana boats. Just leave out the marshmallows, and make sure the chocolate you’re using is at least 70% dark chocolate.

Next is a cobbler. Use whatever fruit you like: Apples, peaches, pears, berries. You won’t be adding sugar, so use sweet, ripe fruit. Top the cobbler with a crust made from almond flour biscuit dough. If you like, top it with whipped coconut cream.

Or make tofu chocolate pie.

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Charlotte Riggle, author of Catherine's Pascha and The Saint Nicholas Day Snow
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