When starting a diet to reduce inflammation, it doesn’t matter how many anti-inflammatory foods you use if you’re priming your body with the most inflammatory foods every day. It’s really essential to eliminate the cause of the problem in the first place.
What is chronic inflammation?
Inflammation is the body’s defense system kicking into gear when it senses something has gone awry. Inflammation can be a good thing if you’ve had an injury or an infection. But it becomes a bad thing when chronic inflammation is present from poor diet and lifestyle choices.
Chronic inflammation is linked to certain disorders and may cause plaque buildup in arteries, which causes stroke and heart disease.
How do unhealthy foods cause inflammation?
What I’ve determined after years of research is that there is no one-size-fits-all Anti-Inflammatory Diet.
What that means is that there are some foods that cause inflammation and there are other foods that are pretty controversial. This is because when we have different types of studies and different ways of interpreting those (with a little bias thrown in), you come up with different outcomes unless most of the science points in one direction.
That being said, there are actually three main categories of food that causes inflammation:
- Foods that are KNOWN and SHOWN to be inflammatory by science,
- Your PERSONAL KNOWN allergies or intolerances to foods,
- Those foods that are CONTROVERSIAL that you will need to eliminate if a condition you’re managing contraindicates it or if you’re unsure.
So let’s discuss each category and unpack what those are and what it means for YOU.
KNOWN inflammatory foods
These are the foods that the overwhelming majority of scientific studies, trials, and reviews have determined to be inflammatory to the body.
Sugar is one of the most inflammatory foods, and I listed it first because there’s a pretty large population of people (especially those trying to get on an Anti-Inflammation Diet) that are hooked on sugar and refined carbohydrates and feel completely stuck and hopeless.
Why sugar is bad
First and foremost, the majority of sugars available at the grocery store and in processed foods is highly refined. Each different form (especially high fructose corn syrup) is dangerous in its own right. Sugar causes a blood sugar spike and then crash, which has been shown to damage our metabolism, leading to weight gain and chronic disease with repeated use. This can also lead to chronic inflammation, cancers, obesity, chronic kidney disease and fatty liver disease.
Hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) has been shown to induce and increase the inflammatory response. What that means is that if you have regular excessive sugar intake, you have a constant rollercoaster of hyperglycemia and then subsequent blood sugar crashes all day long.
Natural Sugars vs Added Sugar
Many people who start an Anti-Inflammation Diet want to know what the difference is between ‘sugar’ and ‘added sugar’.
Added sugar (on a food label) indicates the amount of additional sugar that was added into the packaged food. When you have a food that has natural ingredients that inherently have carbohydrates then it will show ‘sugars’ on the label. Food companies must now distinguish between which of those sugars are natural sugars in the product and which ones have been added.
Be aware that even natural sugars can be inflammatory foods even if they’re in fruits. Also be wary of natural sugars from maple syrup, honey, and agave. They’re still sugar.
Most common places to find sugar
Honestly anything that’s processed or packed these days will most likely have sugar in it. Obvious foods are breakfast items, snacks, and desserts. Lately several natural food companies have been introducing snack and breakfast bars with minimal ingredients that are promising.
Hidden sources of sugar
Where sugars get overlooked is 2 different places:
- Disguised sugars: This is when they’re listed as the 50-something and growing different variations of sugar on the food label.
- Not-so-obvious foods: This is where sugar is getting added into foods that you’d never expect (like bacon, spaghetti sauce, BBQ sauce, etc).
Artificial sweeteners have been under fire a lot the last few years, and with good reason. Aside from anecdotal accounts, studies have shown that the compounds in artificial sweeteners wreck gut health and induce pro-inflammatory changes, which is vital to a diet that will reduce inflammation.
**These are NOT the same as natural zero-calorie sweeteners.
Examples of artificial sweeteners are:
- saccharin (brand name Sweet N Low- the pink packet)
- aspartame (brand name Nutrasweet- the blue packet)
- sucralose (brand name Splenda- the yellow packet)
Artificial trans fats are highly inflammatory and should be avoided at all costs. They’ve been connected with hardening of the arties and heart disease. These are fats that have been chemically altered to stay fresh for longer and are banned in many countries.
Sources of trans fats
Most trans fats are found in bakery-type items but can really be in anything processed.
How to recognize trans fats
On food labels, you’ll know if trans fats are present because the label will use the word ‘hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ (something to that effect).
One thing to look out for is labeling on the package that says, “0 grams trans fats per serving”. What that usually means is that they’ve made the serving size on the label so small that they’re using a labeling loophole to be able to state that there are no trans fats when in fact there are. Read the ingredients list always.
Refined carbohydrates in the form of grain flours are inflammatory foods because of the effect on blood sugar levels. In fact, they can raise glycemic levels as much as a candy bar. They also have all the nutrition stripped away, leaving very little in its place except a substance that will put you on the same rollercoaster as sugars.
Where to find refined carbs
Refined grains are in bread, bakery items, cereals, and even things you wouldn’t think about like breaded (and especially breaded and fried) foods.
Alcohol is an interesting inflammatory food because studies have shown that moderate consumption can have a more positive effect depending on the source. Usually this is limited to red wine.
But alcoholic drinks can have a two-fold punch. If the drink is a cocktail full of sugar, you’re getting a double dose of inflammatory foods in a single drink.
CRP is an inflammation-associated marker showing elevated inflammatory levels among people who drink more than safe amounts.
Processed meat refers to meats that have been mechanically ‘put together’. Processed meat consumption has been linked to chronic inflammation and disease, including cancer.
These include deli meats, beef jerky sticks, and other processed meats that you’d expect to find on a charcuterie board.
Vegetable oils and seed oils
These types of oils are highly inflammatory because they’re super refined, and then are usually oxidized by the time they make it into processed foods, or get reheated many times over which also causes oxidation. Oxidation induces the inflammatory response.
Vegetable oils and seed oils to avoid include corn oil, vegetable oil, peanut oil, cottonseed oil, and canola oil that isn’t organic and expeller pressed.
Although most data until the last few years has indicated saturated fats trigger inflammation, all the studies done (apart from recent ones) never differentiated between sources of the animal saturated fats.
Animal based saturated fats
Saturated fats from animals have different omega 3:6 ratios depending on how they were raised and fed, which can offset the inflammatory response. What this means is that occasional consumption of saturated fat may be ok when the source and quality is taken into account.
Sources of animal-based saturated fat includes meat and dairy products.
Plant based saturated fats
Saturated fat from plant sources includes palm oil and coconut oil. Again- the quality of these is what matters as refined sources have been shown to have inflammatory compounds. (Read more about these below) 👇.
KNOWN foods that you have an allergy or intolerance to
These fall into two different categories really: Foods you already know you’re allergic to, and foods that science has shown you should avoid if you have certain conditions.
Allergies and intolerances
Foods that you know you’re allergic to absolutely promote inflammation in the body. The same goes for foods you have an intolerance or sensitivity to because they induce inflammatory markers when ingested, and you have a subsequent reaction to the food.
If you’re not sure if you’re allergic or intolerant to any given food, this can be determined with a blood test, a prick test, or by doing an elimination diet.
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Foods to avoid based on condition
Depending on your given condition that you’re trying to manage, several have studies backing up avoiding certain foods that cause inflammation. These would include:
- metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes, PCOS, and insulin resistance
- GI conditions like IBS and IBD
- respiratory conditions like asthma or COPD
- rheumatoid arthritis or other inflammatory arthritis
- autoimmune conditions/disease (like celiac disease)
- endocrine/hormonal conditions like thyroid or adrenal conditions
That being said, there are specialty subsets of foods that could cause inflammation for some of these conditions. These include lectins, FODMAPS, and fructans.
CONTROVERSIAL foods that could cause inflammation
These are the foods where science has studies showing results that are inconclusive.
This could be because the study size was very small, it was done on animals instead of humans, funding of the study creating bias on the outcome, or the data collection methods relied on study participants remembering things versus having a more concrete data collection method (for example).
With the slurry of new dietary styles comes criticism for different food groups for one reason or another. With low carb diets and keto picking up the pace in the last decade or so, this means carbohydrates are getting a lot of flack. Especially whole grains.
Science shows that when in their whole or cracked forms, whole grains are full of nutrients and needed fiber (because gut health is crucial on an Anti-Inflammatory Dietary Style), but that doesn’t mean that any given grain won’t disagree with you.
Also in line with new dietary styles, especially Paleo or the caveman diet, legumes have also come under fire. Again, studies show that these are full of nutrients, protein, and fiber. But legumes can absolutely disagree with some people.
Soy has come under fire because of the connection to hormones, specifically- estrogen. Soy has been shown to have effects on hormones, but the changes have been fairly small. Again, studies on this go back and forth in that aspect, but in regard to inflammation specifically, the science shows that soy can fight inflammation.
The variable that could make it promote inflammation is for it to NOT be organic (because it is heavily sprayed with glyphosate if not organic), and when it’s in oil form because it’s most likely to also not be organic, and also is heavily refined and oxidated.
Historically, studies on dairy products have been heavily criticized because of the amount of lobbying done by the dairy association in the last few decades. Some studies show no change in inflammation when consuming dairy, and others show inflammatory markers increase, especially with GI conditions like IBS.
So here’s the breakdown: milk has lactose (which is a sugar) and should be avoided.
But other dairy foods like plain, unsweetened yogurt have been shown to be beneficial in boosting gut health, and also have a few studies showing anti-inflammatory effects. Especially when they come from organic grass-fed sources as the dairy products from those animals have the same balanced omega 3:6 ratios as red meat that comes from organic grass-fed sources.
This was covered a bit under saturated fats, but red meat has been shown in the past to trigger and affect inflammatory markers. The problem with these studies was that the quality and source of the meat wasn’t considered.
Recent studies have shown that there is a difference based on those factors. When the sources are organic grass-fed, there was an increase in anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.
Nightshades have been villainized heavily because of claims that they create an inflammatory response. Studies have shown this isn’t actually the case (except in some GI conditions), and in fact, the Arthritis Foundation actually recommends including them in your diet because of their high nutritional value.
Again, saturated fats now have more recent studies backing them up if they come from organic, grass-fed, pastured sources. This is because it balances the omega 3:6 ratios, which controls inflammatory markers.
How to know if these are foods that cause inflammation for me
Really the only way to know for sure if these foods promote inflammation in your body is to do an elimination diet. This is when you eliminate certain food groups (listed above) all at once, or even if varying chunks, then add them back one at a time to see how you react.
All in all, you should absolutely eliminate the obvious offenders (the foods shown to induce inflammation and your personal food allergies and intolerances).
But the remainder are up to you. The foods listed in the last category of controversial foods have been shown to have a ton of nutrients, but that’s not to say you won’t personally react to them.
Again, the bottom line recommendation is to adhere to the basic Mediterranean diet guidelines, do an elimination diet if you’re having symptoms still, and then create an eating plan from there.