7 Foods That Cause Inflammation

September 24, 2015
Inflammation

Inflammation is a natural reaction in the body to fight infection. In fact, it is a sign that the body is healing or repairing tissue. Acute symptoms of inflammation, such as a fever with illness or swelling with injury, are actually signs that the immune system is doing exactly as it should to keep the body healthy.

However, chronic inflammation is a taxing issue on the body. This type of inflammation usually occurs internally, and causes damage and scarring over time. Moreover, it can lead to a host of long-term problems including: 

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD)
  • Obesity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Cancer

Certain foods cause inflammation

Many factors influence chronic inflammation, including the foods you eat. In this article, we’ll discuss some of the most common inflammatory foods and how they may be putting your health at risk. 

Keep in mind that just eating one of these foods, or eating many of these foods only occasionally will not cause chronic inflammation. Complications related to inflammation arise over time, as a result of chronic poor diet choices. In other words, think about your everyday diet. If you notice many of these foods that cause inflammation in your daily diet, it may be time to make small changes.

1. Sugar

Added sugar is extremely common in the American diet. The most common types of added sugar are white sugar (table sugar) and high-fructose corn-syrup (HFCS). 

Many people limit sweets and desserts to avoid excess sugar. However, sugar is commonly used in processed food to improve shelf life, flavor and texture. As a result, excess sugar may be sneaking into your diet through foods you wouldn’t expect to contain added sugar. These foods include things like bread, alcohol, salad dressings and sauces.

A number of studies show that sugar causes inflammation in the body. For instance, one study evaluated the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages on glucose and lipid metabolism, as well as on inflammatory markers in healthy men. Participants consumed beverages with either a moderate or high amount of glucose or fructose daily for three weeks. Following the intervention, participants from all levels of sugar consumption presented with elevated C-reactive protein, a key marker of inflammation (1).

Because added sugar is so common in the American diet, many of us are eating too much too often. The constant exposure to excess sugar puts our bodies at risk. It’s important to read food labels to check for hidden sugar in your food. 

If you want to avoid high-sugar foods that cause inflammation, look for these other names for sugar on the ingredient label: 

  • Cane juice
  • Corn syrup/high-fructose corn syrup
  • Fructose
  • Sucrose
  • Syrup
  • Molasses

It’s important to note that fruits and vegetables contain sugar, but do not cause inflammation. Fructose, a naturally-occurring sugar, is only present in small amounts in fruits and vegetables. Moreover, whole foods like fruits and vegetables contain nutrients such as fiber and antioxidants that fight against inflammation.

2. Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbohydrates include things like white bread, white rice, white pasta, pastries and cereal. Usually, these foods that cause inflammation are made up of processed grains and sugar. Refined grains such as white flour are stripped of their nutrients, usually to benefit processed foods in terms of shelf life and mouthfeel. 

Refined carbohydrates lack fiber, an essential nutrient for blood sugar control, gut health and fullness. Therefore, a diet high in refined carbohydrates leads to high blood sugar, obesity and harmful gut bacteria. All of these conditions contribute to inflammation.

In fact, one study rated foods based on their nutritional value. Participants who ate more foods with a low dietary score (including refined carbohydrates) had higher markers for inflammation, as well as other risk factors for cardiovascular disease (2).

3. Trans Fat

Artificial trans fat is a harmful ingredient used in processed foods to extend shelf life. Often listed on the ingredient label as “partially hydrogenated oils,” this type of fat is the most harmful to the body.

Many studies show a relationship between trans fat consumption and increased risk for heart disease. Specifically, one review of clinical trials and observational studies consistently linked consumption of trans-fatty acids to impaired lipid levels as well as increased inflammatory markers such as C-reactive protein (3).

Examples of foods that contain artificial trans fat:

  • Snack cakes
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Fast food
  • Margarine 

Do you notice anything familiar about this list? More processed foods. 

4. Vegetable and Seed Oils

Vegetable and seed oils are a staple in many kitchens and a common ingredient in processed foods. 

Vegetable and seed oils are high in omega-6 fatty acids. In limited amounts, these polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are beneficial to the body. However, these fats may trigger inflammation if eaten in excess. Because vegetable and seed oils are commonly used in processed foods, it’s easy to overdo it on the omega-6 fatty acids without even knowing. 

To dive a little deeper - inflammation occurs when we eat too many omega-6 fatty acids, and too few omega-3’s. Basically, omega-6 fatty acids trigger an inflammatory response, while omega-3s have an anti-inflammatory effect. When the omega-6/3 ratio is high, inflammation is likely. 

An animal study fed subjects diets with high, moderate and low omega-6/3 ratios for 32 weeks and then compared markers of inflammation and atherosclerosis. Subjects eating the lowest ratio of omega-6/3 ratios had the lowest markers of inflammation. Likewise, the high omega-6/3 group showed the highest indicators of inflammation (4).

The American diet commonly lacks sources of omega-3s, such as fish, while omega-6-rich processed foods are abundant. It’s easy to sustain a high omega-6/3 ratio over time, which causes chronic inflammation and damage.

Vegetable and seed oils may also increase oxidative stress

Oxidative stress occurs when there is an imbalance of free radicals and antioxidants. The imbalance causes damage in the body that increases risk for diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and Alzheimer’s. 

By testing the oxidative stress marker GGT, we can easily tell you how to improve your level of oxidative stress and reduce your risk for long-term health issues. 

5. Excessive Alcohol

Low to moderate alcohol intake may be beneficial to health in some ways. However, excessive drinking is very damaging to the body. 

Alcohol is a toxin. When the liver works to detoxify the body from alcohol, it becomes inflamed. While this is a normal response, some studies show that when this process happens frequently, the liver develops a dysregulated inflammatory response. As a result, chronic inflammation occurs in the liver. Not only does this process predict alcoholic liver disease, but also inflammatory diseases such as CVD, altered immune regulation and bone disease.

The intestines may become chronically inflamed as well, due to irritation from frequent alcohol exposure. Inflammation in the gut produces harmful microbiota and may lead to bowel disorders (5).

6. Processed Meats

Frequent consumption of processed meat has been associated with an array of health issues, including heart disease and cancer. Processed meats include foods like bacon, lunch meat, sausage and hot dogs. 

These meats are heavily processed using a smoking process and/or nitrates. They contain a high amount of a substance called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These end products are a result of cooking at high heat. In the body, AGEs cause inflammation. The inflammatory response, specifically in the colon, may be linked to cancer.

In fact, a cohort study of over 34,000 women found that eating a proinflammatory diet consisting of processed meats increased risk for colon cancer. On the other hand, women who ate an anti-inflammatory diet had decreased risk for colon cancer (6)

7. Red Meat

Red meats like beef, pork and lamb are high in saturated fat. Diets high in saturated fat are often associated with high blood lipid levels that may increase risk for cardiovascular disease.

Furthermore, studies show that saturated fatty acids cause inflammation, which is another risk factor for cardiovascular disease as well as other metabolic diseases. One study found that consuming saturated fatty acids caused an inflammatory response in the hypothalamus. This response triggered resistance to hormones insulin and leptin, which then disrupted the body’s ability to regulate appetite and metabolism. This mechanism puts the body at risk for obesity, diabetes and other metabolic disorders (7).

So, should you avoid all foods that cause inflammation?

Remember, harmful inflammation doesn’t occur from eating a pro-inflammatory food on an occasional basis. Chronic inflammation occurs over time, and damages the body over time. It’s important to take a look at the big picture of your diet - and be honest about the foods you’re eating. 

Equally important, everyone’s body responds differently to inflammatory triggers. 

In addition to making small changes to your diet, it’s important to test your inflammation levels. 

Testing your levels is the only way to know your body’s baseline to determine your current health status, and if your diet may be leading to high levels of inflammation.

Does your diet include many of these foods that cause inflammation? For most, the answer is yes. But that can change! It’s important to take control of your health and improve your body from the inside out.

Breanna Woods

Hi there! I’m Breanna. Friends call me Bre, and you can, too! I’m an Indianapolis, IN-area dietitian who believes a healthy lifestyle should be sustainable and fun. I’m also a new mom who loves to cook, travel and hike with my adventurous husband. Oh, and I can’t forget our handsome husky Huck. He keeps us on our toes! Since becoming a dietitian, I have worked in the clinical field, helping patients manage a variety of medical conditions.

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