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Paleo and Anti-Inflammatory Diets: What They Do and Don’t Have in Common

Can you do both paleo and anti-inflammatory diets at the same time? We talked to doctors and nutritionists to find out.

On the surface, paleo and anti-inflammatory diets couldn’t be more different. Anti-inflammatory diets are intended to fight chronic health problems including heart disease, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, Alzheimer’s and more through the diet’s nutrient-dense, antioxidant-rich foods,

While the controversial low-carb paleo diet emphasizes some of the same principal eating patterns—namely choosing whole, fresh foods over processed kinds—there are entire classes of vital inflammation-fighting (not to mention healthy and nutritious) foods, like whole grains, that the paleo diet eliminates.

But both diets, however, emphasize removing processed foods from your diet, and there’s no controversy about that being good for you. Paleo and anti-inflammatory diets differ hugely in their long-term effects and specific guidelines, so we talked to doctors and nutritionists to find out where they line up, where they don’t, and what you should know about both of them.

assortment of fresh produce on table
Dark leafy greens and bell peppers contain powerful antioxidants to reverse cell damage. fcafotodigital

Resources for Paleo and Anti-Inflammatory Diets

We’ve combed through meal delivery plans, snacks, cookbooks, informative sites and more to find some of the best resources for paleo and anti-inflammatory diets.

Meal Plans & Subscription BoxesPurple Carrot, all-plant meals and meal plans
Hungry Root, customizable meal plans to fit your diet
Sunbasket, organic meals for specific diets including paleo and low-carb
Blue Apron, one of the original meal kit services, with both plans and single box options
Paleo and Anti-Inflammatory Diet How-To BooksThe Inflammation Spectrum: Find Your Food Triggers and Reset Your System, Dr. Will Cole’s essential book about inflammation and food
How to Eat Paleo (When You Don’t Live in a Cave), a simplified, illustrated explainer
Paleo Principles: The Science Behind the Paleo Template, diet information plus recipes
Paleo and Anti-Inflammatory Diet CookbooksThe Complete Anti-Inflammatory Diet for Beginners, easy to follow recipes
Fix It with Food, 125 recipes to manage inflammation, pain, and autoimmune conditions
Quick Prep Paleo, recipes under 15 minutes
Diet MedicationsRemote Pharmacy, online prescribing and shipping, no insurance needed
SnacksThe Only Bean, crunchy dry-roasted edamame
Safe Catch, mercury tested wild-caught tinned fish
Sahale Snacks, sesame bean + nut mix
FullChea, ginger tea
SitesThe Paleo Diet, the official website
The Anti-Inflammatory Diet, John Hopkins Medicine
Helpful ArticlesAn Anti-Inflammation Diet Plan to Help You Lose Weight, Avoid Disease, and Fight Depression, First for Women
Drop a Pound a Day on This Diet Loaded With a Powerful Anti-Inflammatory Spice, Woman’s World
A Low-Carb Diet Isn’t the Cure for Insulin Resistance — In Fact, It Might Do More Harm Than Good, Woman’s World
SupportThe Paleo Diet, Dr. Loren Cordain’s official Facebook page
r/Paleo, large and active subreddit
Anti-inflammatory Diet, public Facebook group

Paleo and Anti-Inflammatory Diets: What They Do and Don’t Have in Common

Foods IncludedGrass-fed/lean meats, fish, fruits and vegetables, eggs, nuts and seeds, olive oilFruits (especially berries), leafy green vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, omega-3 rich fish, olive oil, avocado, dark chocolate, herbs and spices
Foods to AvoidProcessed foods, artificial sugars, grains of any kind, salt, legumes, dairy, starchy vegetables, alcoholProcessed foods, red meat, artificial sugars, refined grains, white flour, trans fats
BenefitsEncourages whole, natural foods, can lead to weight loss, reduced cardiovascular riskReduces risk for heart disease, cancer, diabetes, Alzheimers and other dementias, improves gut health, eases joint pain
DrawbacksLow carb flu, constipation, lack of essential vitamins and nutrientsGroceries may get expensive, cooking/preparing whole foods takes more time
LifestyleNo official guidelinesStress management via meditation and/or yoga, daily walks/exercise, consistent full nights of sleep, quit smoking

Inflammation Is Often an Immune System Response

Chronic inflammation, which is characterized by an ongoing stimulation of the immune system, can potentially disrupt cellular function and cause long-term harm to the body.

Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics Spokesperson and Director of Community Health & Wellness Sandra J. Arévalo, MPH, RDN, CDN, CDCES, CLC, FAND, tells Women’s World, “Inflammation is the normal defense mechanism of our body. When our body is “under attack” either by an injury or “invader” that shouldn’t enter our body, the immune system immediately activates a response in our defense. But there are instances in which the immune system activates when there is no need. When this happens inflammation can be harmful to our body.”

It can be caused by environmental factors, prolonged exposure to an irritant, an autoimmune disease, and/or stress, and the severity of chronic inflammation will depend on the individual and their body’s ability to repair itself.

Reducing inflammation is very important as inflammation has been found to be a factor in many health conditions, including obesity, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, some types of cancer, and some inflammatory bowel disorders.”

Dr Bryanna Connor, MD

The Diet is Made Up of Whole, Fresh Foods

different kinds of berries on table
Berries are high in antioxidants, making them a staple in both diets.Linda Hughes/ Getty Images

Essentially, the anti-inflammatory diet focuses on a high nutrient intake from omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains and of course, lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. These nutrients include vitamins C and E, as well as polyphenols, which are naturally inflammation-fighting.

Arévalo explains this in further detail: “The best sources of vitamin C are fresh fruits and vegetables. Vitamin E is high in canola oil, nuts and seeds.”

The deeper the color in your fruits and vegetables the more polyphenols are in the food. Purple cabbage has more polyphenols than a light green cabbage, spinach has a deeper green than lettuce, bell peppers, berries, mangoes, papaya, oranges, all all great sources of polyphenols.

Sandra J. Arévalo

The Onion and Garlic Family Is Great For Fighting Inflammation

Another great source of inflammation-fighting compounds are alliums. According to Certified Culinary Medicine Specialist Anne VanBeber, PhD, RD, LD, FAND, “These include yellow onions, white onions, red onions, shallots, green onions, leeks, even garlic. It is easy to add these to the diet by using them as flavoring enhancers in any dish.” And spices—ginger, turmeric, garlic and cinnamon, to name a few—are known to be powerful anti-inflammatory staples as well.

Spices—ginger, turmeric, garlic and cinnamon, to name a few—are known to be powerful anti-inflammatory staples as well.

There are two categories of dark green vegetables. One would be the cruciferous vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, arugula. These vegetables contain compounds that are highly anti-cancer and suppress the formation of tumors.

An anti-inflammatory diet would contain cruciferous vegetables everyday, preferably. Other green leafy vegetables that have shown promising health benefits include foods such as spinach, lettuces, collard greens, turnip greens, mustard greens. Greens can be easily incorporated into the diet by adding them to foods you already eat. They can be added to soups, green salads, and green bowls, omelets and frittatas, etc.

Dr. Anne VanBeber

Avoid Foods High in Salt, Sugar and Fat

Inflammatory foods tend to be those with high sodium, sugar or fat content. Processed foods, such as deep fried items, fast food, deli meats should be avoided as well. Those convenient ready-to-eat meals found in the freezer section are also known to trigger inflammation due to their high salt content. The anti-inflammatory diet guidelines encourage cutting out red meat in addition to processed meats—bacon, burgers, sausage and deli meats.

Foods to avoid on an anti-inflammatory diet include:

  • White bread and pasta
  • Chips and cookies
  • Canned soups
  • Soft drinks
  • Candy and artificial sweeteners
  • Deli meats and red meat
  • Whole milk and dairy
  • Fried foods
fresh green salad with vegetables
fcafotodigital/ Getty Images

What To Shop For When Following an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

  • Berries, especially cherries and other dark-colored fruits
  • Tomatoes
  • Salmon and tuna
  • Turmeric, ginger and oregano
  • Olive oil and avocados
  • Spinach, kale and broccoli
  • Almonds and walnuts

An Anti-Inflammatory Diet Includes Lifestyle, As Well

Reducing inflammation is not solely about what you eat; it’s also important to take a well-rounded approach by making lifestyle changes. Sandra J. Arévelo recommends “giving yourself enough time to rest and sleep is crucial to help the body recuperate energy and heal.” She adds to “exercise regularly — a 30 minute walk five days a week or more is all you need to activate your body to be stronger.” Smoking is also known to be an aggravator of inflammation, so we advise curbing that habit.

Prioritizing self-care also contributes to lowered inflammation as it reduces stress levels in the body. Practices like meditation and yoga have shown proven improvements in managing stress, and subsequently lowering cortisol and inflammation levels.

There Are Many Long-Term Benefits

As we know, inflammation is linked to a multitude of chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, asthma and autoimmune conditions. But by increasing your intake of foods high in natural anti-inflammatory agents, your body can be well-equipped to fight these disorders. And according to Sarah Lili Herrington, MSCN, CNC, CPT, Nutritionist at Brio Medical, “Benefits of an anti-inflammatory diet potentially include decreasing inflammatory markers, improved digestion and skin, reduced joint pain, and increased energy.”

For example, an anti-inflammatory diet has been shown to alleviate joint pain and “potentially slow the progression of damage.” Research has also supported the diet’s correlation to cardiovascular health. The Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that those who followed this diet had fewer cardiac-related incidents. This can be credited to the antioxidant-rich foods ability to decrease inflammatory biomarkers.

The Paleo Diet Means Eating Like a Hunter-Gatherer

meat salmon and vegetables on table
Elena Yeryomenko/Getty Images

There doesn’t seem to be much middle ground for the paleo diet. People either believe in it passionately or outright reject it. Proponents sing praises of the diet’s efficacy for quick weight loss, while health experts warn of its restrictive nature and potential risks.

The paleo diet is “a dietary pattern that mimics how our hunter-gather ancestors were believed to eat. This way of eating completely avoids processed foods, dairy, grains and legumes, as these were not foods that were available to these populations. Instead, items such as meat, vegetables, fruit, nuts and seeds are encouraged,” Sarah Lili Herrington tells Women’s World.

Paleo Excludes Some Central Food Groups

Since the main principle of the paleo diet is to “eat like a caveman,” meaning only to consume what our Stone Age ancestors had access to tens of thousands of years ago, there are a handful of food groups that are restricted. Dairy, grains and legumes are among these core foods to be avoided.

This, of course, raises concern because of the essential nutrients that are being deprived when you cut out these food groups. Dairy provides calcium, which is vital for bone health. And whole grains are a great source of fiber, to boost digestion and overall gut health.

Legumes are abundant in fiber, too, and also boast plenty of plant protein, iron, vitamin B, potassium, zinc and more. These small but mighty protein sources have been linked to stabilized blood sugar, lowered blood pressure and even anti-aging benefits.

salmon avocado healthy fats
Healthy fats rich in omega-3 fatty acids include olive oil, salmon and avocados.Yana Tatevosian/Getty Images

The Paleo Diet’s Legitimacy Has Been Debated

It should be noted that although Paleo has been widely accepted and popularized in mainstream media, its legitimacy remains a topic of contention. In other words, recent research seems to debunk the paleo diet’s historical accuracy. In Scientific American, researchers suggest that rather than the meat-heavy, no carb regimen we may know the diet as today, the actual Paleolithic people’s eating patterns were a lot more nuanced and dependent on factors like region, climate and season.

In order to survive, they ate what they had access to—and this included carb-y sources of energy such as root vegetables. Fossils from that era indicate early humans consumed starchy vegetables and a primitive form of grains, which certainly contradicts popular paleo diet beliefs.

Side Effects Of Paleo Can Be Unpleasant

A commonly reported risk associated with following the Paleo diet, or any low-carb diet for that matter, is the “low carb flu.” These symptoms include nausea, headache, muscle cramps and fatigue. Research has also found that the lack of fiber in the Paleo diet can result in constipation, which is never good for the digestive system, long or short term.

arugula salad in bowl
annabogush/ Getty Images

The Paleo Diet Includes Some Anti-Inflammatory Foods, But Ultimately Is Too Restrictive And Discouraged by Nutritionists

According to Sarah Lili Herrington, “An anti-inflammatory diet is theoretically the backbone of most diets: The Mediterranean diet, AIP, a paleo diet, a DASH diet, all are an iteration of an anti-inflammatory diet.” That being said, the paleo diet does not come highly recommended or supported by most health experts.

The paleo diet integrates the core of the anti-inflammatory diet — highlighting whole natural foods that are rich in antioxidants, vitamins; and inflammation-reducing compounds. And of course, cutting out processed foods, refined carbohydrates, artificial sugars and fast food will always have a positive impact on health as doing so lowers cholesterol, stabilizes blood sugar levels and more. So the Paleo diet gets that part right, no doubt.

However, it’s the diet’s complete elimination of integral food groups like whole grains and legumes (both of which contribute significantly to overall wellbeing) that raises an issue with health experts. It also places a high emphasis on red meats, which are not the most optimal for anti-inflammatory purposes.

The best approach is to follow the clean, balanced guidelines of the anti-inflammatory diet, as it’s simple nourishment provides your body with the necessary nutrients to prevent inflammation and protect from serious health conditions.

What are the best anti-inflammatory foods to include in your diet?

Berries, fatty fish, leafy greens, oatmeal, turmeric and olive oil are just some of the top food items with proven inflammation-fighting properties.

Is the paleo diet anti-inflammatory?

Yes, the paleo diet consists of many anti-inflammatory foods (dark leafy greens, berries, omega-3 rich fish) which are foundational to both diets and linked to decreased systemic inflammation.

Will the paleo diet lead to weight loss?

The paleo diet is a high protein, nutrient-dense one, which can help keep you feel full for longer. It also eliminates fast food and high-sugar, high-sodium foods, leading to a significant calorie deficit. Therefore, it can lead to weight loss. However, it’s important to keep in mind that this diet lacks some key nutrients such as calcium and vitamin D.

How long does it take for the anti-inflammatory diet to have its effect?

Sandra J. Arévelo states: “There is ample research which supports the anti-inflammatory properties of vitamins, omega 3 fatty acids and polyphenols. Many people who have started making changes in their diet have felt some positive effects. However, these changes do not occur overnight. Changes might need to be gradual and persistent to be able to experience the full effect.”

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This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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