The Top 5 Foods That Cause Inflammation—And Why to Avoid Them

Lauren Bedosky
Medically Reviewed
February 5, 2021

Skin rashes. Depression. Headaches. The trickle effect of chronic inflammation symptoms can pop up in many ways, but the foods we consume on a daily basis can make all the difference in managing inflammation. Read on for a list of the major foods that cause inflammation , as well as how to create an anti-inflammatory diet that works for you.

The link between diet and inflammation

Inflammation is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, inflammation helps protect your body against illness or infection by increasing the production of cytokines that promote healing, white blood cells called phagocytes that destroy damaged cells, and more. However, if the inflammation never fades away it can increase your risk of developing a chronic disease (like type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease), according to a 2019 article in the journal Nature Medicine .

Which foods and beverages you consume can significantly impact inflammation in your body , particularly in the gut. Some foods and beverages lower gut inflammation, while others raise it. When your gut is inflamed, your body produces inflammatory molecules that circulate your entire body: “They’re carried through our blood supply, so they can sort of show up anywhere,” Chmielewski says. Chronic inflammation symptoms present themselves in a variety of ways including arthritis, fatigue , headaches, sinus issues, anxiety , depression, weight gain, brain fog , and skin issues .

“People can be a bit confused because they don’t tie their symptoms to inflammation,” says Jill Chmielewski , RN, a health coach at Parsley Health . You may even be unaware your body is inflamed or you are living with chronic inflammation symptoms. But if you keep feeding your body inflammatory foods, you could wind up with unrelenting symptoms that often lead to chronic disease, Chmielewski says.

If you already have an inflammatory condition, such as an autoimmune disease , reducing or eliminating foods that cause inflammation (in other words, adopting an anti-inflammatory diet) can also be an important part of your treatment to reduce symptoms . And take note: The following top the ‘worst offenders’ list for foods that cause inflammation.

5 most common foods that cause inflammation

1. Added sugar

Unlike the naturally-occurring sugars you find in fruits and dairy products, the added sugars found in things like store-bought sauces and condiments, granola and protein bars, or sweetened soda, juice, or tea can cause rapid swings in insulin and blood sugar levels. These short-term spikes are often met with an increase in pro-inflammatory proteins . Research suggests it doesn’t take long to notice the effects: In one study , healthy young men who sipped a can of soda with 40 grams of added sugar every day saw an increase in inflammatory markers, insulin resistance, and LDL cholesterol after just three weeks.

2. Saturated fat

Like added sugars, consumption of foods high in saturated fat (butter, cheese, baked goods, fatty or processed meats) are linked to an increase in inflammatory markers . Saturated fat mimics the actions of an inflammatory gut bacteria known as lipopolysaccharide (LPS), research suggests .

3. Processed meat

Eating processed meats is associated with an increased risk of inflammatory conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, according to one review . In short, dietary behaviors are modifiable, and an intake of fish and/or poultry in place of red meat will help hamper chronic inflammation symptoms. Processed meats like sausage, bacon, ham, and beef jerky typically contain more advanced glycation end products (AGEs) than unprocessed meats. AGEs are inflammatory compounds that form through high-temperature cooking methods.

4. Vegetable and seed oils

Cooking oils like canola oil, corn oil, and peanut oil are rich in pro-inflammatory omega-6s, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. In healthy amounts, omega-6s help your body lower LDL (or “bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (“good” cholesterol). But research shows we need to balance omega-6s with anti-inflammatory omega-3s (found in salmon, walnuts, and flaxseed) to lower incidences of chronic inflammatory symptoms and diseases . Right now, many of us are getting too many omega-6s and not enough omega-3s , which coincides with the uptick of inflammatory diseases like heart disease, inflammatory bowel disease, obesity, and rheumatoid arthritis.

5. Excessive alcohol

Drinking high amounts of alcohol creates bacterial overgrowth in your gut. When you have too much of any type of bacteria in your gut, your body responds by triggering inflammatory proteins and immune cells, according to research . Also, research shows that high amounts of excess alcohol consumption increase gut permeability, which allows LPS to leak out. Normally, your liver can keep the inflammatory effects of LPS in check, but alcohol use impairs liver function. The result can be chronic inflammation.

Eliminate chronic inflammation symptoms by focusing on holistic healing

If you want to decrease inflammatory markers or prevent chronic inflammation symptoms, it’s best to work with a provider to come up with a nutrition plan. At Parsley Health , members work with doctors and health coaches to design and implement an anti-inflammatory diet that fits their lifestyle. Here’s how:

Identify trouble foods

In addition to some of the top foods that cause inflammation above, some people may also have food allergies or intolerances that can make a certain food inflammatory for them. Because not everyone will react poorly to the same foods, Parsley Health doctors and health coaches recommend a basic elimination diet to help members identify food intolerances or sensitivities, or further testing to identify food allergies.

Keep a food log for one week to see what you typically eat (and notice foods that cause inflammation). Then, remove a few foods from your diet for 30 days. Your coach will help you identify ingredients on labels and strategize healthy food swaps for an individualized anti-inflammatory diet. With input from your health coach , reintroduce those foods slowly after 30 days and note whether you feel any symptoms reduce in severity.

You can also test out different foods within a category to see if you only react to certain ones. For example, you might feel fine eating cheese made from goat’s milk, yet feel nauseous or fatigued after a latte made with cow’s milk due to different levels of lactose .

Find healthy food swaps

If it turns out one or more foods are causing issues, Parsley Health coaches can provide recipes, sample grocery lists, and strategies to give members ideas to incorporate less-inflammatory ingredients into their meals. This may be especially helpful if you’re overwhelmed by the thought of cutting favorite foods out of your diet.

Can’t kick sweets? Look for alternatives to refined sugar like raw honey, coconut sugar, and maple sugar, and limit the amount you use. “We provide a lot of resources to help a patient understand what a swap might look like and how to make it less traumatic for the family,” Chmielewski says.

Lauren Bedosky

Lauren Bedosky is a freelance health and fitness writer who specializes in running, strength training, and nutrition. She writes for a variety of national publications and businesses, including Men’s Health, MyFitnessPal, Livestrong, and Women’s Running. Lauren lives in Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, with her husband and their three dogs.

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