Bad news. Your yummy snacks are likely laced with foods that cause inflammation. Inflammatory foods are the most widely available foods, often hiding in plain sight.
But these inflammatory foods wreak havoc all over your body. Inflammatory foods cause chronic diseases like heart disease, cancer, diabetes and neurodegenerative diseases.
Less severe reactions to inflammatory foods include bloating and acne.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is both good and bad. Good in the short-term, but detrimental to your health in the long-term.
So what is it?
Inflammation is an immune response your body activates in response to anything it doesn't recognize. Things your body doesn't recognize could be infection, injury, chemicals, environmental triggers like plant pollens, microbes or excessive stress.
Your immune system produces inflammation to try to remove these foreign stressors to protect you.
Where does inflammation happen?
Inflammation happens locally and systemically. You can get inflammation in your joints (aka arthritis) or in your organs or heart.
As I mentioned above, inflammation is a good thing sometimes. For example, when you sprain your ankle, inflammation is crucial to the healing process. It increases blood flow and sends white blood cells to help heal damaged tissues.
However, inflammation can be bad as well. This is referred to as chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation persists over weeks and months. Your body is in a constant state of stress trying to fight off infection.
You get incredibly run down and are more likely to get a chronic disease.
Risk Factors for Chronic Inflammation
- Excessive and uncontrollable stress. This is an important distinction because our body treats stress we perceive as uncontrollable much worse than stress we can fix.
- Sleep disorders
- Living with air pollution
How Inflammation is Detrimental to Your Health
Chronic inflammation or inflammation that happens every day is incredibly dangerous.
Just about every bad health disease is linked to chronic inflammation, including:
You may think I’m being dramatic in saying that cancer is linked to inflammation. The National Cancer Institute stated that inflammation creates DNA damage that can lead to cancer (1).
Inflammation is also common in those with heart disease (2).
Some of the foods below are shown to increase your risk for diabetes and autoimmune conditions as well (3).
Foods that cause inflammation also lead to weight gain, which is proinflammatory in and of itself.
If you want to find inflammation, start in your kitchen before you reach for the medicine cabinet.
Research shows that certain foods have a protective effect on inflammation. These anti-inflammatory foods can reduce inflammation and your risk of chronic disease.
Read below for our report outlining the top anti-inflammatory foods.
However, you must reduce your intake of inflammatory foods first. Adding anti-inflammatory foods will not help you if you are still eating them with foods that cause inflammation.
Here are the top 8 inflammatory foods you should avoid.
Foods that Cause Inflammation
1. Refined Carbohydrates
These are carb sources that are stripped of all nutrients and fiber. Refined carbs are also highly processed into foods we see everyday like:
- Baked goods (bagels, bread, cookies)
- White rice
The foods above have almost no nutritional benefit, but carry a risk. Refined carbs are foods that cause inflammation. They also have a high glycemic index (GI).
High GI foods will spike your blood sugar into oblivion, which causes inflammation (4).
Eat this instead
The cool thing is that swapping refined carbs for whole grains can reduce inflammation (5). Choose whole wheat options or ancient grains like spelt and buckwheat.
I won’t spend a ton of time on alcohol because you know it is awful for you, but we still drink it. I get it.
The truth is that alcohol is a major cause of inflammation. Regular alcohol use increases inflammatory markers like CRP (C-Reactive Protein) (6).
3. Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils should be consumed sparingly. But they’re in almost everything.
Inflammatory vegetable oils include soy, corn, safflower, sunflower, canola and peanut oil.
Why are vegetable oils considered inflammatory foods? They’re high in omega-6 fatty acids.
While your body needs some omega-6s, we get too much of them because they are in everything. Excess omega-6s causes inflammation in our cells (7).
You need to prioritize omega-3s in order to improve your omega-3 to omega-6 ratio.
Some research suggests a ratio of 4:1 omega-6 to omega-3 is optimal. However, most of us are closer to 15:1 (8).
This is because vegetable oils are cheap filler ingredients used in processed foods. Why are they so cheap?
The crops that go into these inflammatory oils rely on government subsidies and are produced in massive monocrop farm operations.
Please read your ingredient labels. So many seemingly healthy foods are laced with vegetable oils.
The worst culprits are salad dressings, sauces and vegan meat substitutes.
Eat this instead
Extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil are great sources of healthy fat for cooking. Avocado oil also has a high smoke point for pan frying.
You can also use coconut oil, ghee or tallow.
4. Fried Food
We’ve all reached for chicken strips, chips or fried mozzarella sticks in the past. Heck, I ate chips yesterday.
Fried foods are delicious, but sit front and center of foods that cause inflammation. They’re cooked in a savage combination of trans fats and vegetable oils (see above).
Trans fats directly increase many markers of inflammation if your body (8). They’re also shown to increase your LDL cholesterol while lowering your HDL cholesterol. This combination makes you susceptible for heart disease (9).
The danger with trans fats really can’t be understated. You must read your labels because they hide in plain sight.
Anything that says: ‘hydrogenated oil’ is code for trans fats and should be avoided. These typically appear in baked goods, fried foods and butter substitutes.
Lastly, fried foods are usually full of refined carbohydrates as well. It really doesn’t get much worse than deep fried food. Sorry taste buds!
5. Added Sugar
Another ingredient hiding in every processed food is sugar. The most popular forms of added sugar are sucrose and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS).
They’re similar but are used in slightly different ways. High fructose corn syrup is used in sugar-sweetened beverages, soda, ice cream and candy.
Sucrose is used in baked goods, cookies, juice, cereals and chocolate.
Sugar and HFCS are particularly inflammatory because they’re high in fructose. Yes that same fructose is found in fruit.
Interestingly, your body treats fructose from sugar and HFCS differently than fructose from fruit. So no need to cut back on your fruit intake.
Finally, sugar can counteract the positive effects of omega-3s in your diet.
Eat this instead
Sugar should be used sparingly. There are more natural sources of sugar found in honey or maple syrup. These are better alternatives than sugar. However, your body still treats the sugar in maple syrup the same as sugar in a can of soda.
6. Trans Fats
Trans fats are hydrogenated oils which are incredibly inflammatory. They’re artificially made by adding hydrogen to oil in order to make it stable. Sounds awful.
Food labels will read: ‘partially hydrogenated oils.’
You read above how fried foods are full of trans fats. Other foods that are spiked with trans fats include:
- Butter substitutes, margarine and particularly vegan butter alternatives
- Fast food favorites like french fries
- Pastries and cakes
It’s important to note that certain meats naturally contain some trans fats. These are not dangerous the same way that trans fats from hydrogenated oils are.
Eat this instead
Coconut oil or avocado oil are a good substitute for baked goods that call for shortening or butter alternatives.
If you do buy products with trans fats look for less than 1 g trans fats per serving.
7. Ultra Processed Foods
This is a category of foods you’ll find in grocery stores. Let’s call them ‘frankenfoods.’
Frankenfoods are so highly processed that many are using the term ultra processed.
These are foods that contain:
- Nasty additives
- Flavour enhancing agents
- Thickening agents
- Binding ingredients
They also go through multiple processing techniques like heat, molding, extrusion, milling, etc.
What happens when you process foods and add nasty ingredients listed above? You get dangerous foods that cause inflammation.
Many processed meats like hotdogs, sausages and chicken nuggets fall into this category.
What you may not realize is that some popular faux meat products also fall into this category.
They use many of the techniques and additives listed above. Some have even compared them to dog food. Although I won’t go that far.
I’ve written at length about both, so read up if you want a deep dive into how they’re made.
Experts think that colon cells particularly get inflamed due to processed meat products.
8. Artificial Sweeteners
The silent assassin. Artificial sweeteners are all the rage, they sneakily sweeten all low-sugar dietary products. They are widely used and applauded for their ability to mimic sugar without the negative consequences of sugar.
But the truth is we do not know the long-term effects of them. You rarely get a free lunch with these types of things. Put another way, you’re paying for it some other way.
For example: sucralose (aka splenda) is shown to cause liver inflammation in animal models (24).
We also know that artificial sweeteners disrupt our gut bacteria (25). Your gut plays a major role in controlling inflammation. So anything that disrupts gut function could cause inflammation.
There are new artificial sweeteners in vogue every year. For example, stevia, monk fruit, erythritol are three popular ones now.
While stevia and monk fruit may come from natural sources, we’re not sure the long-term effects.
So far those two seem to be more naturally made than other artificial sweeteners. They may not cause inflammation, we are not sure.
Eat this instead
Like I said above for sugar, you can find more natural forms of sugar or more natural artificial sweeteners.
But it is best to gradually reduce your intake. Your tastebuds change and your gut bacteria changes. Over time, you will not crave sweetness like you once did.
Read my companion piece to this: 12 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods.
Inflammation can be both good and bad. For the sake of this article, you should be concerned about chronic or long-term inflammation.
There are many negative health outcomes associated with long-term inflammation. These include: heart disease, cancer, obesity, diabetes and autoimmune conditions.
There are many foods that cause inflammation. These foods are best eaten in moderation.
Have you suffered from inflammation from bad food? Did changing your eating help? Leave a comment and let me know.
Also, share this with someone who may be eating too many inflammatory foods; we’re in this together.
Images via juststock, sumner graphics, chokmoso, naypong, getty images