15 Inflammatory Foods to Avoid and Here’s Why
Inflammation is our immune system’s natural response to anything and everything that causes unnecessary problems in our bodies. While seemingly disruptive, when it comes to something that is truly toxic to our bodies, inflammation can (and will) save you! While our immune systems are really out there doing the most for us, it’s only fair we do a little for them as well by reducing inflammation in any way we can. Here’s to using our most powerful weapon to reduce inflammation: found not in the medicine cabinet, but in the fridge; let’s talk about 15 inflammatory foods to avoid (and why.)
- The body sees inflammatory foods as something that doesn’t belong in the body and tries to get rid of it, but (accidentally) kills our good bacteria in the process and results in inflammation.
- When left unresolved, chronic inflammation can result in serious mental and physical problems, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and depression.
- Refined carbs, processed and red meats, sugars, trans fats, and omega-6 fatty acids are all inflammatory food groups that can be avoided or consumed in moderation.
How are food and inflammation linked?
Anytime our bodies encounter an “invader,” or any foreign, toxic chemical, its natural reaction is to fight it off for us. These invaders can come from the environment, pollution, chemicals, and the foods we eat. And while it can be a good thing for inflammation to act as our savior and protect us against something truly harmful, it has the potential to persist 24/7– and that is when inflammation becomes the real enemy.
In general, the biggest triggers to our immune system are environmental toxins, stress, and our diets. Over 20% of the population suffers from chronic inflammation and the number is only growing. Unfortunately, chronic inflammation can wreak havoc on our bodies, resulting in a plethora of physical and mental problems in the long-term. Fortunately, we have control over our diets and have the power to eliminate some problem-inducing foods.
Our world has inexorably and rapidly become dominated by “convenience culture,” where we consume foods that are easiest and most convenient for us at the moment– but at the sacrifice of what? In this case, those convenient packaged foods, fast foods, processed foods, and refined foods– you name it– are all major culprits in the surge of chronic inflammation.
These inflammatory foods essentially alter the bacteria in our gut; as soon as the food enters the digestive system, the body wants it gone. In an attempt to get rid of the foreign substance, the entire body joins in to help destroy it– but ends up destroying the innocent bystanders (the good bacteria, our joints, our organs!) in the process. The result is inflammation, and the long-term effects are substantially worse.
The negative effects of inflammation
When unresolved, chronic inflammation can kickstart chaos in the body, potentially contributing to physical issues such as heart disease, autoimmune disorders, asthma, and diabetes and affect our mental health in ways including depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Additionally, it tends to be a silent killer; the effects of inflammation are almost undetectable at first, which is why many don’t know it is a problem until it is irreversible.
Beginning symptoms and stages of inflammation may be subtle; many symptoms go undetected. You may feel completely normal, or just slightly fatigued. As it starts to progress, however, your organs, joints, and arteries begin to feel the effects.
Overtime, chronic inflammation can also cause damage to our cells’ DNA and have an impact on the way our cells grow, potentially leading to cancers and tumors.
In addition to feeling the physical effects of inflammation on the body, it is important to note that this can have severe impacts on mental health as well. There has been research that links chronic inflammation with the development of mental illnesses including, but not limited to, depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder. Inflammation is correlated with high levels of cytokines which are linked to increased risk of depression.
15 inflammatory foods to avoid
Our diet is essentially the foundation for our health: consuming a plethora of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, and whole grains can reap tremendous physical and mental benefits. While the world is your oyster in terms of discovering and crafting a healthy diet that works for you, here is a list of 15 inflammatory foods to consider avoiding (or more realistically: consider eating in moderation!)
1. Sugar and high fructose corn syrups (HFC)
According to the American Heart Association, the average American consumes about 77 grams of sugar per day: more than three times the recommended amount! It can be extremely challenging nowadays to find food without an insanely high added sugar content, but unfortunately we have to remember that our bodies were not designed to handle the excessive amount of sugars we feed it.
The insulin from the added sugars and HFC displaces the sugar into our cells for energy, but when there is too much, they have to resort to storing the sugar in our fat cells. Excess sugar leads to expanding fat cells, which leads to weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes.
Pay close attention to food labels to manage added sugar content, and remember there is a difference between added sugars and natural sugars. Some of the top contributors of added sugar and HFC include:
- Fast foods
- Ice cream and popsicles
2. Processed and red meats
Generally, processed meats have been cured, fermented, or smoked for preservation purposes. Research shows that red and processed meats are high in saturated fats, which have a high correlation to inflammation.
Specifically, eating a surplus of saturated fats can raise cholesterol in the blood, which blocks the arteries and can correlate to heart disease and stroke. Processed meats include:
- Beef jerky
3. Refined carbs
Refined carbs are carbohydrates that have been completely stripped bare of all fiber and nutrients; think:
- White bread
- White rice
Similarly to added sugars, nothing in our bodies slows the breakdown of refined carbs; they can spike the blood sugar, which sends the immune system into fight mode. Instead of refined carbs, try turning to brown rice, whole wheat pasta or other pasta alternatives, or oatmeal to substitute into your diet.
4. Trans fats
When you think of trans fats, think man-made fats! Certain kinds of fats (see Omega-6 fatty acids below) are necessary for our body to function properly; however, trans fats are not. Trans fats should be avoided because they have a tendency to lower our “good” cholesterol while raising our “bad” cholesterol.
Before the 1990s, there was little research done on the negative effects that trans fats have on your health; however, we now know that eating trans fats significantly increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
Check out nutrition facts labels for keywords such as “partially hydrogenated” or just “hydrogenated,” as these processed foods likely contain needless trans fats. Common foods that contain trans fats include:
- Microwave popcorn
- Coffee creamers
Swap out microwave popcorn and try air popped, lightly seasoned popcorn instead! (It may not taste as great as movie theater popcorn, but your body will thank you!) Also, check out Califia Farms or Nut Pods brands for a better coffee creamer alternative that still tastes delicious!
5. Omega-6 fatty acids
Omega-6 fatty acids are actually necessary for our body to function. As a polyunsaturated fat, it is considered a “healthy” fat, however, the American diet is often unbalanced, meaning we consume excess omega-6 fatty acids, and not enough omega-3s.
The goal is to have an ideal omega-6 to omega-3 ratio: too many omega-6s can lead to inflammation. Omega-3s (think avocado, salmon, walnuts, and chia seeds) contain anti-inflammatory properties, so we ideally want a balance between the two.
If that was too many “omegas” to keep track of, here are some foods that can be inflammatory if consumed in excess:
- Vegetable oils
- Many salad dressings
While there isn’t a lot we have control over in life, fortunately, we can control our diets. And while some inflammation is unavoidable and also necessary, inflammation as a result of a poor diet is completely unnecessary and more or less preventable. A general goal: attempt to consume as many colorful, whole foods as you can: these foods likely contain a vast amount of vitamins and minerals that are critical for our bodies to function properly.
Also, a rule of thumb: if a nutrition facts label has ingredients on it that you can’t pronounce, those are *most likely* foods that can cause problems; if you can’t pronounce it, why should you eat it? While this list may contain some of your favorite foods or guilty pleasures, do not get discouraged. Rather than focusing on what you “can’t” eat, focus on all the things you can. Remember: everything is okay in moderation, and nutritious foods can be delicious too!
Written by Morgan Taylor