10 of The WORST Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
Chronic inflammation is a buzzword in the health and nutrition community lately—and with good reason. Recently, emerging research has discovered strong links between chronic inflammation and all kinds of serious, chronic diseases. From rheumatoid arthritis, to heart disease, to cancer, chronic inflammation is wreaking havoc in our bodies and damaging our health. But, too few of us are even aware of chronic inflammation in our bodies, or the inflammatory foods that we eat on a daily basis!
So, what is chronic inflammation? What’s it doing in our bodies? And what are the inflammatory foods that we need to avoid? The food we eat on a daily basis has a HUGE impact on our health! And, simple changes in diet can help reverse the effects of chronic inflammation—or even eliminate some of the serious health problems we suffer from.
Now, brace yourself. There’s a lot of information here, and it can feel overwhelming, a bit scary, or even maddening. But, there IS a message of hope. Ignorance is NOT bliss. Having this knowledge gives us the power to make changes that could change the course of our lives, and our health!
And, learn how to fight off existing inflammation with the 17 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Your Body Needs NOW!
What Is Inflammation?
Every human body comes equipped with its own high-quality security system. When the body detects an injury or an invader—like an allergen, bacteria, virus, or foreign pathogen of some kind—it springs into action with an inflammatory response. Inflammation is the immune system’s natural form of defense, working to fight off anything potentially harmful and help the body heal. So, not all inflammation is ‘bad!’
Then, as soon as that alarm sounds, the body mobilizes a crew of white blood cells to rush over to the area of concern and get to work. Often, this results in some redness, swelling, heat, and/or discomfort, but this is all part of the body protecting us. This acute inflammation is totally normal and helps the body heal! With an injury or allergen, the immune system does what’s necessary to disarm the alarm. Our immune system responds quickly, and the inflammation generally goes away once the injury heals or the ‘invader’ leaves.
If you’re allergic to pollen, your body senses pollen in your nose or eyes as a threat. It sounds the alarm, turns on the inflammatory response, and releases histamines to help get the invaders out of you. That’s why you might sneeze or your eyes get puffy and swollen. Those allergy symptoms (your allergic reaction) are the body’s attempt to keep you safe! (And, that’s why we take anti-histamines, to turn off our body’s histamine response and relieve those allergy symptoms.) But, there’s another, more sinister form of inflammation, a.k.a. the BAD inflammation: chronic inflammation.
Just one of the many amazing comics from Beatrix the Biologist (who's amazing).
What is Chronic Inflammation? What Causes It?
We’ve known that chronic inflammation plays a role in certain diseases, like asthma, arthritis, and Crohn’s disease. Asthma is chronic inflammation of the airways. Arthritis is chronic inflammation of the joints. But, the medical field has only just begun to look at chronic inflammation as a treatable cause of many chronic diseases—rather than simply trying to treat their symptoms. A doctor often suggests or provides pain relievers for someone with arthritis who’s experiencing joint pain. Yet, alleviating symptoms does nothing to fix the actual problem in the body.
Inflammation is a signal from the body that something is wrong. We need to listen to that signal and address the problem! And, WE have the power to fight inflammation at the source: the inflammatory foods in our diet.
Now, there’s emerging understanding that chronic inflammation plays a major role in many serious, chronic diseases. For example, cardiologists now recognize that factors like high cholesterol are symptoms of heart disease. But, at its core, heart disease is chronic inflammation of the arteries. Currently, we’re learning that chronic inflammation either does or may play a role in countless serious conditions, like:
- Heart disease
- High cholesterol
- High blood pressure
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
Thanks to Dr. Jockers for this awesomely helpful diagram!
How to Reduce Inflammation in the Body
In case the health risks of chronic inflammation aren’t scary enough, you should know that it can also lead to plenty of other lifestyle problems. It can cause a lack of energy, skin and digestive issues, and reduction in healthy gut bacteria. And, chronic inflammation can also lead to weight gain, build belly fat, or make it more difficult to lose weight—even when we’re eating well and exercising! So, the obvious route is to start working on the core problem: reduce inflammation in the body. How do we do it?
Naturally, the food we eat on a daily basis is a significant factor in our health—including chronic inflammation. And, that’s why anti inflammatory foods and anti inflammatory diets have become so popular! (Check out the 17 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Your Body Needs NOW!) Luckily, changing our diet can alleviate, and sometimes eliminate, serious health conditions by reducing chronic inflammation. We have to tackle the causes of chronic inflammation (like inflammatory foods), so our immune system can function properly again.
Basic Steps to Reduce Chronic Inflammation in the Body:
- Remove as many inflammatory foods as you can from your diet. It can help to do this gradually, so the body can adapt. And, we’ll be less likely to feel deprived and resort back to old eating patterns.
- Start including one new anti-inflammatory food into your diet each day. Try some new foods and see what you like!
- Minimize other factors that contribute to inflammation, like stress, lack of sleep, or a sedentary lifestyle. Find ways to relieve stress, aim to get more sleep, and get more active!
- If needed, anti inflammatory supplements can help some But, a supplement won’t do us any good if we’re not eating well consistently! And, getting our nutrients from REAL foods is always better and more effective.
Inflammatory Foods to Avoid
So, the first step is to identify the inflammatory foods in our diet. Most of these foods we already know are ‘unhealthy,’ or not-so-fuel-filled. But, even some seemingly ‘healthy’ foods can be pro-inflammatory! Now, due to individual sensitivities, certain foods (like dairy and gluten) can be inflammatory for some people but not for others. (Learn more about Food Sensitivities & Autoimmune Diseases!) But, some foods are pro-inflammatory for all of us—especially when we eat them often and consistently.
Here’s a brief list of the most common (and damaging) inflammatory foods, and you can find more detailed information about each below:
- Artificial trans fats
- Omega-6 foods (especially vegetable and seed oils)
- Refined sugars
- Simple, refined carbohydrates
- Refined grains & flours
- Processed foods
- Fried foods
- Fast food
- Artificial sweeteners
- Artificial additives
- Conventionally-raised meats (grain-fed)
- Processed meats
...So Many Inflammatory Foods...Cannot Compute...
We already know we should steer clear of some of these foods, like trans fats. And, it's clear that limiting added sugars, processed foods, fried foods, and fast foods in our diet are all sound decisions for our health. But, some inflammatory foods—like vegetable oils, artificial low-calorie sweeteners, refined grains, and conventionally-raised meats—make their way into our diets all of the time. And, it's this repeated (sometimes daily) exposure to inflammatory foods that poses the greatest risk to our health.
You may cook with certain vegetable oils, or not even realize that they sneak into SO many foods. (Even seemingly healthy foods, like protein bars). Often, try to be healthier by choosing sugar-free, low-sugar, or no-sugar-added products, like sodas or our coffee creamer. But, we then consume the artificial sweeteners used to replace the sugar. When we eat bread, we're most often consuming highly-refined grains. And, many of us use that bread to make a sandwich with processed deli meat. So, do we have to cut out ALL of these common foods that we eat??
I know it's overwhelming. I'm overwhelmed by it, too! But, whether you're dealing with a serious health condition or just working toward your healthiest self, having this knowledge is power. Only YOU can decide how to use this knowledge and implement it in your life! Start with small steps, and identifying which inflammatory foods show up in your diet is step 1.
Artificial Trans Fats
Common Food Sources: margarine, shortening, baked goods (especially pre-packaged), doughnuts, pies, cakes & cake mixes, frosting, pancake/waffle mix, ice cream, fast food, fried foods, restaurant food (especially ground beef), potato/tortilla chips, crackers, jerky sticks, non-dairy creamers, frozen meat products, frozen dinners, frozen pizzas, biscuits, breakfast sandwiches, microwave popcorn
Ingredient Names to Look For: partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, partially hydrogenated cottonseed oil, partially hydrogenated palm oil, partially hydrogenated palm kernel oil, partially hydrogenated canola oil, partially hydrogenated coconut oil, ANY KIND OF "HYDROGENATED" OR "PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED" OIL!
- Artificial trans fats are manmade Unlike naturally-occurring trans fats in some meat and dairy, artificial trans fats don’t occur naturally in foods.
- So, the body doesn’t know how to process them, registers them as a ‘foreign invaders,’ and launches an inflammatory response to itself.
- And, trans fats are linked to heart disease and can be damaging even in small amounts!
- Research shows that eating more trans fats leads to more markers of inflammation in the body.
- And, many studies confirm that higher consumption of trans fats can significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Even when trans fats made up just 2% of a person's daily calorie intake, heart disease risk increased.
- Artificial trans fats are so dangerous, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned them. By 2018, no foods in the U.S. can use manmade trans fats in their products.
What to Do:
- REMOVE trans fats from your diet! Not only are they inflammatory foods, but they’re also downright dangerous!
- Choose brands that are trans-fat-free. Take some time to look for trans fats in the food products you use frequently. Whether you use an item with trans fats every day or once a week, it's best to find a NEW brand that doesn't contain trans fats!
- Be sure to READ nutrition labels and look beyond the nice-and-neat "0 grams trans fat." Check out the ingredients list and look for any kind of “partially hydrogenated” oils. Currently, the FDA still allows products with 0.5 grams of trans fat or less advertise “0 grams trans fat” on the label!
Omega-6 Foods, Especially Vegetable Oils & Seed Oils
Common Food Sources: chips, crackers, store-bought roasted nuts, popcorn, cookies, breads, mayonnaise condiments, sauces, salad dressings, coffee creamers, restaurant meals, protein bars, & TONS of processed foods made with the oils listed below (almost everything in the grocery store that's packaged, seriously...)
Ingredient Names to Look For: "vegetable" oil, soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, canola (rapeseed) oil, peanut oil, grapeseed oil
- Omega-6 fatty acids are essential. But, one of their main purposes is to help the body repair after strenuous activity or exercise—making them pro-inflammatory.
- Most of us consume FAR too many inflammatory foods with omega-6s, and far too few anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Ideally, the ratio should be 1:1, but the average Western diet has a 20:1 ratio, resulting in a state of chronic inflammation in the body.
- The major sources of omega-6s in most people’s diets today are vegetable and seed oils. These oils are now used in TONS of processed foods, fried foods, and for cooking at most restaurants, as a cheap and ‘healthier’ replacement for trans fats.
- These oils are snuck into SO many common foods (many of which we eat every day). And, each little bit we consume adds up quickly.
- Also, omega-6s are VERY reactive to heat. When cooked, they produce free radicals that attack our healthy cells. Those free radicals contribute to aging and a host of chronic diseases like cancer.
(Check out our post about balancing your Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio to learn more!)
- In Japan, despite higher rates of smoking and high blood pressure, the risk of heart disease is 87% lower than in the U.S. Researchers found that the body tissue in Japanese study participants was made from about 60% omega-3s and less than 40% omega-6s. But, in U.S. participants, omega-6s composed nearly 80% of their body tissue, increasing heart disease risk significantly.
- In one study with rats, those with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1 (like the typical Western diet today) had significantly higher levels of inflammatory markers than rats with a 1:1 or even 5:1 ratio.
What to Do:
- Avoid vegetable and seed oils as much as possible to reduce your omega-6 intake!
- Limit cooking with high omega-6 vegetable oils and choose healthier oils, like avocado oil, coconut oil, or olive oil.
- Limit eating out at restaurants, since most meals will be cooked in vegetable oils.
- Start reading nutrition labels to look for vegetable and seed oils. (Yes, you can expect to find them in processed foods like chips and cookies. But, also in all kinds of condiments, dressings, and even ‘health’ foods like protein bars!)
Common Food Sources: soda, fruit juices, coffee/tea drinks, energy drinks, snack bars, granola, granola bars, protein bars, candy, cookies, cereals, breads, baked goods, ice cream, flavored yogurts, canned soups, frozen dinners, instant oatmeal packets, ketchup, condiments, pasta sauce, bbq sauce (& all kinds of sauces), salad dressings, all sorts of processed foods!
Ingredient Names to Look For: sugar, cane sugar, corn syrup, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, dextrose, maltodextrin, galactose, disaccharides, brown rice syrup, evaporated cane syrup, and SO MANY MORE NAMES.
(Also, ingredients like coconut sugar, molasses, maple syrup, honey, and agave are generally less refined than other sugars. But, they still contain sugar and behave like sugar in our bodies!)
- Table sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate made of glucose and fructose. If we consume too much glucose, the body can’t process it all. It sets off an alarm that we’re in a “toxic” state and tries to defend itself with an inflammatory response.
- Sugar also weakens the immune system by suppressing the ability of our white blood cells to attack germs and foreign invaders.
- High amounts of fructose (like in high-fructose corn syrup, NOT natural sources like fruits and veggies) can also cause and increase inflammation in the body. And, high fructose intake is also linked to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and even some cancers.
- Several studies in mice have shown that a high-sugar diet can lead to chronic inflammation and the development of cancer. And, eating lots of sugar can decrease in the anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3s.
- A study in humans showed that simply drinking sugary sodas increased levels of uric acid in the body, which drives inflammation and insulin resistance. And, both inflammation and insulin resistance are key drivers in the development of type 2 diabetes, as well as cancer.
- Recent research also revealed that a higher daily intake of added sugar measurably increases heart disease risk.
What to Do:
- Become aware of the sneaky places that sugar can be hiding in your diet. And, the many different names for it you’ll see on ingredients lists. Don’t just look at the grams of sugar—check the ingredients list, too!
- Avoid drinking extra sugars in sodas, coffee drinks, and fruit juices with added sugars!
- And, replace sources of added sugar with healthier alternatives. Instead of soda, try drinking water or pure fruit juice (with no sugar/sweeteners added). Reach for fruits when you have a sweet craving, instead of packaged and processed treats.
Learn More: Sugar & Sweeteners 101!
Simple, Refined Carbohydrates
Common Food Sources: sugar (see above), white bread (& refined ‘wheat’ breads), gluten-free breads, pasta, pizza, crackers, pretzels, tortillas, cereals, bagels, store-bought doughs/crusts, baked goods
Ingredient Names to Look For: white flour, all-purpose flour, enriched wheat flour, semolina flour, gluten-free all-purpose flour, white whole-wheat flour, bread flour, self-rising flour, cake/pastry flour, gluten flour, any flour with "enriched" in the name has been refined!
- Simple and refined carbs (like sugar) are also known as high Glycemic Index (G.I.) foods. These generally cause larger blood sugar (a.k.a blood glucose) spikes. But, complex, unrefined carbs are low G.I. foods with the opposite effect.
- Simple, refined carbs are highly processed, which removes most of their nutrients and fiber. This causes the body to break them down VERY quickly.
- When blood sugar rises rapidly, insulin levels rise rapidly in response. Insulin has a pro-inflammatory response as it works to “detoxify” the body and get glucose levels under control.
- And, without gut-friendly dietary fiber, refined carbs and grains encourage inflammatory gut bacteria to grow.
- Also, new (faster) production methods now make the gluten in many store-bought breads harder for us to digest. This can cause an inflammatory response in our gut.
- One study looked at middle- to older-aged adults who ate lots of high G.I. foods (specifically more refined sugars and refined starches). Those adults were almost 3 times more likely to die of an inflammatory disease! But, eating fruit (in part because of its fiber content) decreased risk of inflammatory death.
- Researchers comparing modern diets to those of our ancestors note that today's diets contain more refined flours, sugars, and processed foods. These kinds of refined carbs are far denser than the whole-foods forms our ancestors ate. They're difficult for us to digest properly and promote the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria. And, this bad bacteria also makes it easier for us to gain weight and belly fat.
- Refined carbs and high G.I. foods cause large blood sugar spikes., which leads to the development of insulin resistance over time. And, current research suggests that insulin resistance promotes a state of chronic inflammation. The body has to fights constantly to get glucose levels under control, resulting in repeated inflammatory responses.
What to Do:
- Replace refined carbs/high G.I foods with more wholesome, unprocessed carbs/low G.I. foods.!
- Include more healthy sources of fiber, protein, and dietary fat in your daily meals.
- And, focus on eating real, whole foods while limiting intake of processed, packaged foods.
- Choose whole, unrefined grains and ditch the overly-processed refined grain products. And, choose your store-bought bread wisely!
Processed Foods, Fried Foods, & Fast Food
Common Food Sources: chips, crackers, cookies, breads, (most anything made in a factory and sold in a package); fries, fried chicken, fish sticks, chicken tenders, onion rings, burgers
Ingredient Names to Look For: ALL THE BAD STUFF—hydrogenated oils, vegetable oils, refined grains, refined sugars, artificial additives—if you can even FIND OUT the ingredients used in most fried/fast foods...
- Processed, fried, and fast foods may be the WORST inflammatory foods.
- They contain SO many things that activate the body’s inflammatory response: artificial trans fats, vegetable and seed oils, refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, refined carbs and grains, artificial additives—the list could go on! Eating a lot of ANY of these would be a problem. But, processed, fried, and fast foods contain MANY of these inflammatory substances!
- And, the major danger of these ‘convenience’ foods is that we tend to eat them frequently and consistently (sometimes every day).
- Plus, because they're made with vegetable oils, they contain large amounts of inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These compounds form (along with free radicals) when vegetable/seed oils are cooked, fried, grilled, pasteurized, smoked, or dried at high temperatures.
- And, if it couldn’t get any worse, most fast food contains chemical toxins known as phthalates. These are used in plastic food or beverage packaging and can seep into the food, causing inflammation in our bodies.
- In one study, participants who cut out processed and fried foods from their diet saw a decrease in both inflammation and oxidative stress (caused by free radicals).
- Recent studies link greater fast food consumption to higher levels of phthalates in the body. And, those phthalates are associated with increased markers of inflammation.
What to Do:
- Limit the processed foods, fried foods, and fast food that you eat—or cut it out completely! These foods offer little to no real fuel for our bodies, and can seriously worsen chronic inflammation.
Conventionally-Raised Meats & Processed Meats
Common Food Sources: conventionally-raised (non-grass-fed, or non-pasture-raised) beef, pork, lamb, chicken, pork; bacon, hot dogs, bologna, sausage, jerky, deli meat
Ingredient Names to Look For: any meat products that don't say "grass-fed" or "pasture-raised" on the package have been conventionally-raised on an unnatural soy/corn/grain-based diet!
- Conventionally-raised livestock today eat an unnatural diet of corn, soy, and grain products—because it’s cheap. But, these animals are meant to graze on pastures and eat grass!
- Because of this, meat from conventionally-raised livestock has more inflammatory omega-6s, which we then eat. (Just like how corn and soy oils increase the omega-6 content in our bodies!)
- And, to prevent their unnatural diet from making the animals sick (and to make them gain weight), they’re given hormones and antibiotics. Those substances are then present in the meat we eat and our bodies detect them as ‘foreign invaders.’ Naturally, the immune system tries to fight them off with an inflammatory response.
- Much like other processed foods, processed meats are one of the worst inflammatory foods we can eat. Since they’re made from conventionally-raised livestock, our sausages, deli meats, and jerkies are also higher in omega-6s.
- And, processed meats are high in inflammatory AGEs because the meats are cooked, dried, smoked, or pasteurized at high temperatures.
- Fairly recent research discovered that AGEs are majorly prevalent in meat products after cooking in dry heat environments. But, that research also revealed that we can reduce the formation of AGEs in several ways. Cook with moist heat, cook for shorter time periods, cook at lower temperatures, or incorporate acidic substances into meat dishes (like lemon juice or vinegar).
- MANY studies link processed meat consumption with the development of various cancers, along with heart disease and diabetes.
- Researchers suspect that the colon’s inflammatory response to processed meats leads to colon cancer.
What to Do:
- Choose grass-fed meats and pasture-raised poultry over conventionally-raised. Although it tends to be more expensive, it’s worth the splurge.
- Limit processed meats in your diet. It’s best to stick to choosing and cooking your own meat!
Artificial Sweeteners, Artificial Additives & Some Sugar Alcohols
Common Food Sources: processed foods, no-sugar-added foods, no-calorie “diet” drinks, protein bars & powders, cereals, candy, ice cream, chewing gum, just about any packaged food these days contains some form of artificial additive!
Ingredient Names to Look For: aspartame (Equal/Nutrasweet), sucralose (Splenda), acesulfame potassium (Sunnet/Sweet One), saccharin (Sweet'n Low), neotame (Newtame); "artificial colors" & "artificial flavors;" soy lecithin, sunflower lecithin, carrageenan, xanthan gum (emulsifiers); maltitol, sorbitol, isomalt (sugar alcohols)
- Similar to artificial trans fats, artificial sweeteners, colorings, and other additives aren’t found in nature. Typically, the body doesn’t know how to process them and treats them like ‘foreign invaders’—which means they’re inflammatory foods.
- And, artificial sweeteners trick the body. We taste the sweetness and expect the glucose to follow as it does with sugar but it never comes. So, when our bodies can’t metabolize that expected glucose properly, it can cause inflammation (much like sugar and refined carbs do).
- Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols can also decrease the good bacteria in our gut. Normally, that good bacteria helps fight off gut inflammation.
- Similarly, artificial additives like emulsifiers and thickeners can lead to inflammation (and weight gain) by disrupting our healthy balance of gut bacteria.
- Plus, research links these artificial additives and colorings to TONS of other health problems, ranging from hyperactivity in children to increased tumor growth!
- Studies in both mice and humans found that artificial sweeteners alter the balance of bacteria in the gut. This contributes to increased glucose intolerance, which is associated with type 2 diabetes.
- And, some studies even link frequent diet-soda drinking with long-term weight gain.
- Studies link several common food dyes to the development of cancer, as well as hyperactivity in children. (In fact, products with food dyes must come with a warning label in many European countries!)
- Current research suggests that common emulsifiers (like carrageenan, lecithin, and xanthan gum) disrupt healthy gut bacteria. This can then lead to intestinal inflammation and serious digestive issues, like IBD and ulcerative colitis.
- Some sugar alcohols (like erythritol) have little to no side effects. But, the FDA acknowledges that both sorbitol and mannitol can have a "laxative effect" when consumed in "excess" (which isn't a very large amount). Especially if you already deal with IBS, IBD, or other gut issues, these sugar alcohols can worsen inflammation in the gut.
What to Do:
- Limit (or eliminate) intake of packaged, processed foods. Most are full of inflammatory artificial additives, colors, and sweeteners (or added sugars)! Best to stick to natural, real
- Cut down on “diet” sodas and be cautious with products labeled as “no added sugars” “sugar-free.” Sure, they don’t contain added sugars. But, they generally substitute with artificial sweeteners or sugar alcohols!
- Read the ingredients list on food labels. Even if there are “0 grams sugars,” look for artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols. They go by many different names!
Oy Vey...Now What?
I know that all of this information is overwhelming. As I’ve learned more about inflammatory foods and chronic inflammation, I find myself getting angry, terrified, and sad—sometimes all at once… It all feels so frightening! Really, how could we not know all of this?? Why aren’t we talking about it more? And, what the heck can I eat when SO many common foods are inflammatory foods?!
My best advice is to absorb what you can from this information and make changes in small, gradual steps. (That’s my approach, at least.) I know I won’t be able to cut out ALL of these foods from my diet all at once. And, I know that I will still eat some processed foods, sugars, sweeteners, fast food, conventionally-raised meats, and the like. Some of those foods I enjoy, and I know my budget won’t always allow me to buy things like grass-fed meat. But, my aim is to make those inflammatory foods occasional visitors to my body, rather than daily attackers on my immune system.
So, I try to remind myself that, even if this information can scare me a bit, having this knowledge is power. I have the power to DO something about what’s going on in my body, just by changing how I eat. And, transitioning away from inflammatory foods isn’t JUST about chronic inflammation. It’s also a great motivator to move towards eating more anti-inflammatory foods—and more healthy, wholesome, REAL foods in general. I do sincerely believe that we can gradually phase inflammatory foods out of our diets, until they are the exception instead of the rule in our bodies. And, I’m sure our bodies will thank us!