Inflammation is an interesting process. On one hand, it’s an essential feature of how our bodies protect themselves and respond to pain. However, long-term sustained inflammation can be harmful, increasing our risk of disease and compromising our health.
The food we eat can have a surprisingly strong impact on inflammation. We’ve talked about anti-inflammatory foods before, including ones that are rich in plant-based nutrients. Today we’re taking a different focus and looking at foods that cause inflammation instead.
After all, all the anti-inflammatory foods in the world won’t do you much good if your diet is still packed with things that cause inflammation. To truly decrease inflammation, you need more anti-inflammatory foods and fewer inflammatory ones.
Table of Contents
Inflammation Causing Foods
- High Fructose Corn Syrup
- Artificial Trans Fats
- Refined Carbs
- Processed Meat
- Some Vegetable Oils
- Foods That Might Cause Inflammation
Sugar might be an ingredient rather than a food, but it’s also one of the most crucial inflammation-causing ingredients in our modern diets. Multiple studies have found that high sugar intake increases inflammatory markers in our bodies.
The effect appears to be strongest for added sugar, rather than the sugar that you find in fruits and vegetables. Sugary drinks can be a particular problem, not just because they are high in sugar, but also because they contain few nutrients.
It’s crucial to talk about added sugar as it can be found in so many different foods. Many of the refined low-fat foods that are popular in our modern diets have extra sugar added to make them palatable. You’ll also find extra sugar in unexpected places, like salad dressings, tomato sauce, soup, bread, and many other foods.
Sugar’s impacts don’t stop with inflammation either. High intake of added sugar has also been linked to a variety of health problems, including increased risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and obesity.
What You Can Do. You don’t need to cut sugar out of your diet entirely. Many healthy foods contain some sugar too, including berries, which are loaded with antioxidants and can decrease your inflammation levels. The trick is to choose your foods well. Focus on whole foods rather than refined ones and avoid added sugar whenever you can.
Pay close attention to the ingredients label too. While added sugar will always be listed on the ingredients label, some of the names for this sugar can be tricky. Sugar and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) are the most common types. You may also see agave nectar, coconut sugar, Florida crystals, honey, sucanat, rapadura, and many others.
Also remember that some options, like honey and coconut sugar, aren’t necessarily as healthy as they sound. They might be better than regular sugar, but they’re still a type of added sugar. In the end, even these ‘healthier’ sugars can lead to inflammation.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in refined foods. It often replaces sugar, partly because it is inexpensive to create.
The name comes from the fructose concentration of the syrup. While sugar consists of roughly 50% fructose and 50% glucose, high fructose corn syrup contains around 55% fructose and 45% glucose instead.
This isn’t an appealing difference, as the fructose in sugar helps to drive inflammation.
What You Can Do. Try to avoid foods that use high fructose corn syrup as an ingredient. It’s better to look for ones with no added sugar at all, but, if you have to choose, then sugar is more desirable than high fructose corn syrup.
Artificial Trans Fats
Trans fats turn up in some natural products too, including red meat and dairy. These naturally occurring trans fats may have some benefits and often occur in nutrient-dense foods. As such, they can be good for you, as long as you are also eating plenty of healthy plant-based foods.
Artificial trans fats are an entirely different story. These are created by chemically adding hydrogen molecules to unsaturated fat. Doing so helps to make the unsaturated fat more stable and solid than it would be otherwise.
Margarine is a classic example here. The product is largely made from oils that should be liquid. To create the solid butter-like texture, the oils are hydrogenated (which is why they’re often listed as partly hydrogenated oils on the ingredients label).
High intake of trans fats has been linked to a variety of issues, including higher cholesterol, increased inflammatory markers, and increased heart disease risk.
What You Can Do. Avoiding processed foods is one of the easiest ways to decrease your trans fat intake. You can also look for products marketed as trans fat free. Pay close attention to any type of margarine, vegetable shortening, baked foods, and anything highly refined. These types of food often rely on trans fats.
Be particularly careful of solid stick margarine products. The extra firmness means that these can be higher in trans fats than softer alternatives.
Don’t forget about butter either. While butter has long been seen as unhealthy, modern theories suggest that it can be part of a healthy diet. And, if nothing else, butter is far less processed than margarine.
There’s an ongoing debate surrounding carbs. Some people claim that the right carbs can be good for you, particularly whole foods that contain complex carbs and plenty of nutrients. Others suggest that all types of carbs are undesirable.
That debate’s been covered elsewhere, so we won’t delve into it here. Regardless, both sides agree that refined carbs are a bad idea. These are processed products where most of the fiber has been removed, along with other nutrients.
White flour is a classic example, along with products like bread, crackers, and pasta that are made from the flour.
Processing the wheat and getting rid of the fiber means that you lose most of the benefits that wheat has to offer. Instead, you end up with food that can spike your blood sugar levels and lead to excess inflammation-causing bacteria in your gut.
What You Can Do. Choose your carbs carefully. Some carbohydrate rich foods release energy slowly and can be good for you. Others are highly processed and offer few benefits.
Focusing on whole foods is a good place to begin. Look for ones that contain complex carbs, like whole grains and legumes.
Be wary of starchy foods too, like sweet potatoes and potatoes. While these are still whole foods, they quickly impact your blood sugar levels and have low nutrient density. Such ingredients can be part of a healthy diet if they’re eaten in moderation.
Processed meat is a broad category. It includes meats that have been smoked, cured, salted, or fermented. Key examples include sausages, ham, bacon, and jerky. These types of meat are important, as they’ve been linked to the increased risk of cancer and some other health issues (which is bad news for bacon lovers).
Processed meats are also high in advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are created when some foods are cooked at high temperatures, particularly processed meat. These compounds can lead to inflammation, so it’s best to keep your intake as low as you can.
What You Can Do. Processed meat may be cheap and easy to use, but it doesn’t offer many health advantages at all. It’s best to decrease your processed meat intake as much as you can.
The easiest approach is to swap processed meat out for non-processed alternatives. It’s also worth swapping some of your meat-based meals for plant-based ones instead.
Some Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils are often seen as a healthy alternative to butter and coconut oil, as they don’t contain much saturated fat. However, there’s also heavy debate around these oils.
One problem is that chemical processing is often used to give them the right consistency and flavor. Processing like this is rarely a good thing for health. It’s much better to focus on a whole food diet, one that uses ingredients in their natural forms whenever possible.
Another issue is the omega-6 content of vegetable oils.
Omega-6 is an important dietary fat, but many of us consume too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3. Having an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio that’s heavily skewed towards omega-6 may lead to inflammation.
There’s much less evidence for this effect than for the role that sugar plays on inflammation. Research hasn’t even found a direct cause and effect link between individual omega-6 fatty acids and inflammation.
Still, diets high in omega-6 fatty acids don’t appear to offer many benefits, so cutting down on this type of fat just makes sense. The most problematic products are corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, and cottonseed oil.
What You Can Do. Try replacing high omega-6 oils with healthier options. Olive oil and avocado oil can be appealing, as both are full of healthy fats and are minimally processed.
You might also consider coconut oil and butter. Despite their saturated fat content, both cooking fats have their advantages and may even decrease inflammation, Just be cautious with the amount that you use, as fats and cooking oils tend to be calorie dense.
Increasing your omega-3 fatty acid intake can help with inflammation too. Fatty fish and walnuts are both excellent sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Foods That Might Cause Inflammation
The foods we’ve talked about so far are clear-cut. There’s plenty of evidence for their impacts on inflammation. Most are also highly processed and are the result of our modern focus on convenience.
However, some foods are more heavily debated. For these, the effects on inflammation are much less clear. This sometimes happens because the food has some features that promote inflammation and others that decrease it instead. Other times, the food could increase inflammation in some people and not in others.
Milk often makes its way onto lists of inflammatory foods, along with any product that is made from milk. This isn’t so surprising. After all, the ability to digest milk as adults is a relatively new feature in human evolution.
Earlier on in our history, milk was given to children rather than adults, because adults couldn’t digest it. Such a pattern is common in other mammalian species too. However, humans are unusual, as we developed a mutation where the enzyme lactase remains functioning into adulthood for many people.
These days, many people can digest lactose, but not everyone. Other people are allergic to the casein or whey in milk, which is a separate issue. Beyond this, there are concerns about the nutrient profile of modern milk, especially as cows often aren’t fed grass and the milk is pasteurized.
Research currently suggests that dairy offers more benefits than problems for most people. It even has some anti-inflammatory properties.
Of course, there’s still much that we don’t know. Dairy products vary dramatically from one to the next. Even something as simple as milk can be notably different depending on the type, the farm it comes from, and what the cows were fed.
It’s also likely that inflammatory reactions to dairy are specific to the individual. People who are lactose intolerant or are allergic to dairy may experience inflammation from dairy, even if the general population doesn’t.
What You Can Do. Dairy appears to be a healthy choice for many people, so you may not need to make any changes. If you’re unsure about your reactions, try getting rid of dairy for a while and see how your body responds. If you end up feeling much better, then dairy might not be the right choice for you.
Of course, cutting dairy out isn’t your only option. You might focus on reducing your dairy intake instead.
Meat, particularly red meat, is another controversial topic. The flavor and nutritional density of meat make it a popular choice. Meat is also a complete source of protein, so you get all the essential amino acids from a single type of food.
Despite the nutritional value of meat, there are some compounds that can increase inflammation. One is carnitine, which comes from animal tissue. This isn’t a problem in itself, but our bodies can produce TMAO from carnitine.
Another problem is the AGEs that are produced when meats are cooked. AGEs are more common with dry heat cooking. While these compounds appear to be more prevalent in the processed meats we talked about earlier, they do still feature in non-processed meat.
There are other areas too, like the potential link between saturated fat and inflammation.
Despite this, not everyone agrees about the role of red meat on inflammation. One reason is that inflammation is influenced by your whole diet. A person eating red meat regularly, along with plenty of plant-based foods and whole grains might have much less inflammation than someone eating the same amount of meat, along with plenty of processed and high sugar foods.
Plus, some studies have failed to find a link between red meat and inflammation. It could be that red meat itself doesn’t increase inflammation for most people. Instead, inflammation might be more closely linked to the foods that people eat along with red meat.
What You Can Do. Red meat still offers benefits, so you don’t need to cut it out of your diet entirely. Instead, the trick is to focus on unprocessed red meat, while having some meatless meals every week. Doing so provides your diet with more variation too and plenty of nutrients.
Try paying attention to your serving sizes. You can even treat meat like it is a side dish, rather than the main part of your meal. This gives you the chance to still enjoy meat while keeping your portions in check.
There are two main ways to decrease inflammation in your body. One is to focus on whole foods, particularly plant-based options that are rich sources of antioxidants and phytochemicals. The other is to pay close attention to how your body responds.
We are all different, after all. When it comes down to it, most foods can be inflammatory, if our body reacts against them.
Keep an eye out for foods that appear to make you feel groggy, give you brain fog, lead to increased aches and pains, or make you fatigued. Elimination diets can help you tease out the cause and effect relationship between what you’re eating and how you feel.
This approach involves cutting foods out of your diet for a while, then allowing your body to adjust. After a while, you can start to slowly re-introduce foods, one at a time. Doing so makes it easy to see which foods affect your body and how they do so.
Keeping a diary of food and pain can help as well, as this gives you more clues about patterns over time.