Celebrities love eliminating very specific foods from their diet and then claiming they've figured out the holy grail of health — despite limited scientific backing.
Now it seems athletes do it too.
According to his personal chef, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady eats a highly restrictive, plant-based diet that centers on what he deems "anti-inflammatory" foods. Other foods, chef Allen Campbell explains, are off the table:
No white sugar. No white flour. No MSG. I’ll use raw olive oil, but I never cook with olive oil. I only cook with coconut oil. Fats like canola oil turn into trans fats.... I use Himalayan pink salt as the sodium. I never use iodized salt.
[Tom] doesn’t eat nightshades, because they’re not anti-inflammatory. So no tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms, or eggplants. Tomatoes trickle in every now and then, but just maybe once a month. I’m very cautious about tomatoes. They cause inflammation.
What else? No coffee. No caffeine. No fungus. No dairy.
Is this a good idea? On the one hand, there's plenty of evidence that diets rich in fruits and vegetables deliver important nutrients, reduce the risk for disease, and help people manage their bodyweight. So that part seems fine. Eating fresh food and cutting back on processed ingredients and sugar are always good ideas too.
Without getting into the obvious woo here — like why iodized salt and health oils are demonized — let's focus on the anti-inflammatory core of the diet. According to the best evidence we have, eliminating all sorts of specific foods in the name of "reducing inflammation" is absolutely unnecessary. And since these diets have gained a following in recent years (Gwyneth Paltrow has promoted one, as have Channing Tatum and Penelope Cruz), it's worth taking a closer look at the trend.
What's the point of an anti-inflammatory diet?
You can think about inflammation in the body in two ways.
There's helpful inflammation, as with your body's immune response to an attack by a foreign invader — your skin reddens and heats up to fight off bacteria in a cut.
There's also harmful inflammation: when your body's inflammatory response goes into overdrive, hampering its ability to fight off viruses and disease. One measure of inflammation is a blood marker called C-reactive protein (CRP). Researchers have found associations between higher levels of CRP and various chronic illnesses, including cancer, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. People who are inactive or obese or who eat an unhealthy diet seem to have higher levels of CRP in their systems too.
There are many ways to control chronic inflammation. A good amount of exercise, weight management, and medications can all help, as can diet. The idea behind anti-inflammatory diets is they focus on foods that reduce harmful inflammation in the body, promote healing, and stave off illnesses like cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Is there any science to back up these diets?
There's some evidence that following an anti-inflammatory diet can have benefits. But there's little reason to think you have to get anywhere near as specific or restrictive as Brady does. Cutting out junk food tends to be enough to do the trick.
Many of the popular diets out there — Mediterranean, low-carb, low-fat — all help reduce inflammation, explains Harvard cardiologist Christopher Cannon. "In any of these diets, people are cutting out saturated fat, doughnuts, french fries, all the bad things that promote inflammation. So that helps reduce inflammation very quickly."
So what about nightshade vegetables, like peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants? "That’s one level of specificity that goes beyond what would likely have a big influence," Cannon said.
Dr. Gerry Mullin, a Johns Hopkins gastroenterologist, thought much the same: He didn't know of any science to back up eliminating these vegetables to reduce inflammation. (I couldn't find any good research on this either.) Plus, he added, "Tomatoes are a staple of an anti-inflammatory diet. They have properties that attenuate the inflammatory response." So why Brady and others chose to shun them is unclear.
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet is basically eating a diet heavy in plants and low in junk food
Cannon noted that Mediterranean-style eating is a good example of an anti-inflammation diet: lots of fruits and vegetables, lean meat and fish, and whole grains. In his book The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Anti-Inflammation Diet, he also outlines a few basic principles:
1. Eat a well-balanced variety of wholesome foods.
2. Eat only unsaturated fats.
3. Eat one good source of omega-3 fatty acids every day.
4. Eat a lot of whole grains.
5. Eat lean sources of protein.
6. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
7. Eliminate processed and refined foods as much as possible.
You'll notice that this is basically a healthy diet with no serious demands on cutting out whole food groups or certain vegetables. And that's about as far as the science goes. Anything more is overkill.