I’ve said this once, and I’ll say it again: inflammation gets a bad rap. Unfortunately, we’ve been conditioned to believe that all inflammation is harmful, but that’s not the case. As with most wellness-y things, there’s a delicate balance between too much and not enough. When it comes to inflammation, we want just the right amount. However, many of us have too much and chronic inflammation is widespread, thanks, in part, to the Standard American Diet. Given that it’s deficient in produce and contains excessive amounts of low-quality meat, refined grain products, and sugar, eating this way can have numerous adverse effects. These foods create a pro-inflammatory state. While I’m an advocate of enjoying all foods in moderation, there are certain foods to avoid for inflammation. So, let’s dig in.
Featured image by Michelle Nash.
What is inflammation and why do we need it?
When our bodies recognize a foreign invader—such as a microbe, plant pollen, or chemical—our immune system lights up. This process is called inflammation. Like iron, we need some inflammation to be well. Inflammation is a vital part of our immune system. It signals the body to heal and repair. It’s a defender against foreign invaders, like viruses and bacteria.
However, too much inflammation isn’t helpful. One of the best ways to decrease inflammation in the body? Eat anti-inflammatory foods. These foods nourish the body on a cellular level and help you avoid unwanted inflammation. From seasonal produce to omega-3-rich fish, there are a variety of ingredients that ward off inflammation.
What causes inflammation?
A host of factors cause inflammation. To name a few: smoking, obesity, alcohol, and chronic stress. From unhealthy lifestyle habits to eating ultra-processed foods, inflammation can quickly spin out of control. Can too much inflammation be dangerous?
Yes. As mentioned, we need some inflammation. You want to meet adequate levels of inflammation to support your body’s immune system. Without inflammation, wounds would take longer to heal and infections could become deadly. However, too much inflammation can be dangerous. When inflammation persists on a daily basis, that’s when it can do harm. In fact, many major diseases have been linked to chronic inflammation.
Inflammation and Your Mental Health
Growing evidence indicates that inflammation affects how we feel. Said differently: Too much inflammation can negatively affect mental health. In terms of brain health specifically, too much inflammation is correlated to a variety of mental illnesses. Inflammation is capable of producing depression, anxiety, fatigue, and social withdrawal. Brain inflammation not only damages and destroys brain cells, but it can speed up aging and atrophy of your brain. In turn, this can put you at risk for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and more.
How Inflammation Affects the Body
Like mental health, inflammation also affects the rest of your body. Chronic, low-level inflammation is partially responsible for a host of unwanted diseases and conditions. With acute inflammation (say, you fall and scrape your knee), chemicals from your body’s white blood cells are released to protect your body from invaders. This raises blood flow to the infected or injured area. It can cause redness, warmth, and swelling. These symptoms are normal.
However, if you’re constantly in a pro-inflammatory state, your body’s defense system goes into overdrive. As inflammation progresses, it begins to damage arteries, organs and joints. Left unchecked, it can contribute to chronic diseases. Think: Heart disease, blood vessel disease, and diabetes. Common symptoms of chronic inflammation include fatigue, body pain, weight gain (or loss), digestive issues, and persistent infections. Unlike acute inflammation, chronic inflammation’s symptoms can be much more subtle.
How to Know if You Have Inflammation
Other than the aforementioned tell-tale signs, the most common way to measure inflammation is to conduct a blood test for C-reactive protein (hs-CRP). This is a marker of inflammation. Doctors also measure homocysteine levels to evaluate chronic inflammation, as well as blood sugar to assess damage to red blood cells. If you experience regular pain (that is not attributable to an injury), you may be dealing with chronic inflammation. Schedule an appointment with your doctor to get to the root cause.
Foods That Make Inflammation Worse
Beyond lifestyle habits, there are certain ingredients that can also promote inflammation. While this varies from person to person, fast food, high-sodium frozen meals, omega-6 vegetable oils, and conventionally-raised, processed meats have been associated with higher levels of inflammatory markers.
Furthermore, fried foods or packaged ingredients that contain industrial seed oils have also been linked to increased levels of inflammation. Last but not least, sugar-sweetened beverages and refined carbs can promote inflammation. Let’s dive into foods to avoid inflammation.
12 Foods to Avoid for Inflammation
When it comes to foods to avoid for inflammation, they’re the opposite of leafy greens, bright berries, and colorful spices. Avoid these 12 foods to potentially decrease inflammation in your body.
Not all desserts are inflammatory. You can have your cake (or pie) and eat it, too. However, most doughnuts—especially these—are loaded with pro-inflammatory ingredients, artificial flavors, refined sugar, etc. Not to mention, they spike blood sugar.
One of the reasons why added sugars are harmful is that they can increase inflammation. Furthermore, too much sugar puts you at higher risk of diabetes. Sugary cereals are also ultra-processed, lacking fiber, protein, and healthy fats to aid in satiation.
Unlike their 100% whole grain counterparts, white bread is stripped of fiber and other nutrients. Fiber is key for regulating blood sugar. Unfortunately, white bread is a processed carb that promotes inflammation. However, sourdough is a great choice!
Margarine is often very high in polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acids. Some scientists believe excessive omega-6 intake may promote inflammation. Furthermore, most margarine contains trans fats and is often added to processed foods to extend shelf life.
As with other low-quality processed meats and red meat, hot dogs are pro-inflammatory. They are high in saturated fat, table salt, and may contribute to colorectal cancer. Keep in mind that when it comes to hot dogs, there’s a sliding scale. When possible, aim for hot dogs that are uncured and made from grass-fed beef. These, for example, get my stamp of approval.
Canola oil is one of the most inflammatory foods. It’s refined and high in omega-6 fatty acids. Unfortunately, it’s in everything! Reading labels on packaged food is key. Research shows that a healthy balance of omega-6s and omega-3s is important, but most packaged foods contain too many omega-6s. In turn, these cause consistent inflammation.
Along with table sugar, high fructose corn syrup is a commonly added sugar. Compared with regular sugar, it’s cheaper and sweeter. Plus, it’s more quickly absorbed into your body. However, eating too much HFCS can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, and other pro-inflammatory conditions.
Similar to fries, potato chips are a carb, loaded with sodium, and tend to be fried in an inflammatory vegetable oil (peanut, canola, etc.). All three of these factors make them likely to irritate bodily inflammation. Instead, opt for chips that are fried in avocado oil.
Like white bread, potato chips, popular cracker brands, etc. pretzels can be another pro-inflammatory food. They’re often made with canola oil and sugar. To get your pretzel fix, opt for either of these brands.
Although mozzarella sticks are rich in protein, they are also high in saturated fat and sodium, which can increase your risk for obesity and other inflammatory diseases. Oftentimes, they’re coated in refined flour and fried in inflammatory oils, like canola. Can’t curb the craving? Try these!
It’s no surprise that soda is on this list. In a randomized clinical trial, only those in the soda group had increased levels of uric acid. This drives inflammation and insulin resistance. Sugar can also be harmful because it supplies excess amounts of fructose.
Along with soda, energy drinks are typically loaded with sugar. Not to mention, a ton of caffeine. Drinking too much caffeine can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, thus causing anxiety and insomnia. This overstimulation can cause negative effects from head to toe. Furthermore, chronic release of cortisol—through the regular use of stimulants in energy drinks—increases inflammation.
6 Foods to Eat to Calm Inflammation
On the flip side, there are foods and beverages that reduce inflammation. And with it, chronic disease. In particular, fruits and vegetables—such as blueberries, sweet potatoes, and leafy greens—are high in natural antioxidants and polyphenols.
Avocados are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. They also contain potassium, magnesium, and fiber. Avocados help calm inflammation. In one study, participants who consumed avocado with a hamburger, as opposed to just a hamburger, had lower levels of a few inflammatory markers.
All berries are an incredible source of antioxidants. They contain antioxidants called anthocyanins. These are compounds that may reduce the risk of diseases. Blueberries, in particular, contain flavonoids that can help fight inflammation. They also have chemicals that help regulate your immune system. In turn, reducing chronic inflammation.
Recipe: Blueberry Power Muffins
Virgin olive oil contains numerous phenolic compounds. Of interest is one compound in particular—oleocanthal. Oleocanthal possesses similar anti-inflammatory properties to ibuprofen.
Salmon, sardines, and mackerel are fatty fish with omega-3s. Research has shown they have potent anti-inflammatory properties. EPA and DHA, both present in these fish, reduce inflammation that can lead to chronic illness and disease.
Spinach, kale, collards, and more, leafy greens are anti-inflammatory powerhouses. They’re filled with vitamin E—a natural antioxidant—shown to reduce inflammation in the body
Turmeric contains curcumin, a chemical that might decrease swelling and inflammation. Along with fenugreek and cinnamon, these anti-inflammatory spices contain medical properties, including the ability to increase the body’s antioxidant capacity.
Recipe: Curcuma Golden Mylk