What comes to mind when you think of inflammation? Maybe you think of an injury like a broken arm or a bug bite that’s red and obvious. What might not come to mind is the internal inflammation that happens inside our bodies. That’s because the definition of inflammation specifies it as a localized physical condition where the body is hot, swollen, or red (1).
But inflammation can be much more than that. It can be acute or chronic and start without so much as a hint. Acute inflammation only exists over a short period and points to the inflammation from injuries that heal within a short time (2). Chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease and cancer start from a source of chronic inflammation over a long period (3). There is research that mentions inflammation as the primary driver for all chronic diseases (5). Studies show that targeting inflammatory pathways in the body has been examined to be a possible way to prevent many common chronic diseases (5, 6)
It can be hard to determine cases of ongoing inflammation if health and lifestyle choices are poor. That’s because they can exist in the body for years. Subtle signs of too much inflammation in the body can present itself as small discomforts. Many have become used to in their daily lives. These could be issues like headaches, insomnia, frequent colds, and even depression and anxiety.
Summary: There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation exists for a short period of time and is usually a healing injury. Chronic inflammation is ongoing internal inflammation, and can cause chronic disease onset such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. Possible signs of inflammation also include headaches, insomnia, frequent colds, depression, and anxiety.
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Foods that Cause Inflammation
How can you prevent chronic disease driven by inflammation? One way is with food. Here are some foods to avoid that cause inflammation.
1. Processed and Red Meat
Many studies link processed meat to heart disease, cancer, and several chronic inflammatory issues (7). Some studies even show unprocessed red meat can cause heart disease (8, 9). But many of those studies admit to studying participants who also lead a sedentary lifestyle, which can be a leading cause of inflammation. Processed meat is a much bigger culprit in driving inflammation. Processed meat has more harmful compounds. It can cause many additional chronic issues like hypertension (10), bowel diseases (11), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (12).
Processed meat examples include bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, dried meat, corned beef, and canned meat. Try to avoid these types of foods as much as possible. Processed meats contain many harmful additives, nitrates, chemical compounds, and high amounts of sodium from excess salt (13). However, you can eat meat as part of a healthy diet. Choose meat that is lean, organic, grass-fed, and pasture-raised whenever you can. Treat meat as if it’s a condiment rather than the whole meal. One serving should be no larger than the palm of your hand. The main issue that arises with lean red meat is when it’s eaten well over the recommended serving and too often. Diet is not the only part of being healthy. Many other aspects are involved. If you take a look at your lifestyle habits as well, lean red meat can be a part of a healthy diet.
Summary: Processed meats such as bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, dried meat, corned beef, and canned meat have been linked to inflammatory issues which can cause chronic disease onset. Many studies link processed meat to heart disease, cancer, and many chronic inflammatory issues. Consume lean, organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised meat, and eat it in the right serving size which is the size of your palm.
2. Too Much Alcohol
Alcohol in moderation can be healthy. A glass of red wine or two or even a beer can be a part of a healthy lifestyle. But high alcohol intake leads to persistent increased inflammation (14, 15). If you drink alcohol, make sure to drink in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol damages liver tissue over time (16). Issues range from increased fat in the liver known as hepatic steatosis (17), inflammation known as alcoholic hepatitis (18), and eventually scarring of liver tissue and liver disease known as cirrhosis (19).
Too much alcohol can also eventually lead to too much inflammation and damage the heart and pancreas as well (20). Excess alcohol consumption can also cause other inflammatory issues like brain shrinkage (21), behavior change (22), lung infection (23), fatigue (24), stomach problems (25), infertility (26), muscle cramps (27), and more.
Summary: A glass or two of red wine or beer can be part of a healthy lifestyle. However, high intakes of alcohol can damage liver tissue, increase fat in the liver, or cause inflammation in the liver called alcoholic hepatitis. Too much alcohol can lead to inflammation and damage to the heart or pancreas as well. Consume in moderation if you enjoy drinking alcohol.
3. Refined Carbohydrates
Refined carbohydrates break down into sugar in the body, and sugar causes a lot of inflammation (28). Refined carbohydrates include foods like white bread, dough, pasta, pastries, white rice, sweet desserts, many kinds of cereal. Many people think that you have to cut these foods out of your diet for life to be healthy. That’s not true. You can still enjoy your favorite foods occasionally, without creating too much inflammation in the body. Moderation is the key to living a healthy life.
Plus, there are many alternatives to all these simple carbohydrate foods that taste great. They’re called complex carbohydrates. It might take some time for your taste buds to adjust, but complex carbohydrates are important for optimal health and wellbeing (29, 30). These can include green lentil pasta, chickpea pasta, rice crackers, oatmeal, brown rice, wild rice, whole grain bread, and different flours. There are many gluten-free and healthy alternative flours such as coconut, flaxseed, quinoa, brown rice, and almond flour. You can consume these on a more regular basis because they are complex carbohydrates and have fiber.
Summary: Refined carbohydrates such as white bread, pasta, and cereals break down into sugar and cause inflammation. Consume these foods in moderation. Eat more complex carbohydrates such as beans, legumes, or whole grain products. Try chickpea or lentil pasta, brown rice crackers, oatmeal, wild rice, or whole grain bread. Gluten-free options include coconut, flaxseed, quinoa, brown rice, and almond flours.
4. Foods with Trans-Fats
There’s never a reason to include foods with trans-fats in your diet. They’re known as some of the unhealthiest foods in the world. Foods with artificial trans-fats include fast food, pizza (mostly frozen), cookies, crackers, pies, and many baked goods, creamers, margarine and vegetable shortenings, frosting, and more. Try to make sure that your breakfast cereals, pie crusts, biscuits, pastries, and French fries don’t have trans-fats.
One way to avoid trans-fats altogether is to make your own food as much as possible. You can even make your own French fries with potatoes of any kind. Cooking doesn’t have to be hard. It can take less than 20 minutes and still taste delicious. Plus, it can be very satisfying to cook a healthy and tasty meal for you and your family.
Trans-fats contribute to type-2 diabetes (31), heart disease (32), other cardiovascular issues (33), hypertension (34), and more. Trans-fats are banned in many countries and in most places in the United States. Even some fast-food brands have started to ban trans-fats, but not all of them. It can still be found in many commonly purchased products so always be sure to read the label.
Summary: Unhealthy trans-fats can be found in fast food, frozen pizzas, cookies, crackers, pies, baked goods, creamers, margarines, shortenings, and frostings. One of the best ways to avoid this unhealthy fat is to make your own food often. You can also read the label and make sure the product does not contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated ingredients which have loads of trans-fats.
5. High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup is one of the largest drivers of inflammation out there (35). It’s a common sweetener added to many foods, also known as glucose-fructose, glucose-fructose syrup, and isoglucose. High fructose corn syrup can increase the chances of diabetes (36), heart disease (37), obesity (38), fatty liver disease (39), and more. It contains no nutrients, so it’s non-essential for humans to have. It’s used as a filler to increase the shelf lives of foods, but it does nothing for human health.
It appears in creamers, milk, boxed and canned goods, soda, candy, yogurt, salad dressing, some frozen foods, bread, juice, canned fruit, and more. It’s always a good idea to read the labels on food products before purchasing. High fructose corn syrup is often under the name fructose, fructose syrup, glucose, maize syrup, and natural corn syrup, too. When shopping at the grocery store, try to shop the perimeter to avoid foods with high fructose corn syrup and vegetable oils. Any food that’s greasy, fried, deep-fried, or covered in oil causes inflammation in the body.
Summary: High fructose corn syrup is a huge contributor to inflammation. It’s commonly added to soda, candy, yogurt, salad dressings, frozen foods, bread, juice, canned goods, creamers, and so much more. Read labels and make sure high fructose corn syrup is not an ingredient. It is commonly seen on labels as fructose, fructose syrup, glucose, maize syrup, and natural corn syrup.
6. Vegetable Oils
Vegetable oils have high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids (40), which can drastically increase the risk of chronic inflammatory diseases (41). Everyone needs omega-6 fatty acids for optimal function, but you never need them to that amount. Omega-6 fatty acids need to be balanced with omega-3s in the body to stay healthy (42). It can be difficult to avoid vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup because they are in a lot of different foods. Many processed, boxed, and frozen foods have unnecessary vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrup, for example.
Summary: Omega-6 fatty acids in excess can drastically increase risk of chronic inflammation. Our bodies need some omega-6 fatty acids to function, but not in high amounts. Vegetable oils are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Many processed, boxed, and frozen foods have high amounts of vegetable oils and high fructose corn syrups, so try to make your own food often.
Inflammation is a multifaceted topic with many workings. Since inflammation can be acute or chronic, there are many levels to it. Everyone’s body is unique to what they can tolerate, too. There is a range of chronic diseases driven by inflammation as well as a chronic inflammatory disease like asthma (43), tuberculosis (44), hepatitis (45), and many more. Be sure to speak with your doctor if you have recurring sources of pain that could be caused by inflammation.
Try to avoid these foods and incorporate healthy foods into your diet daily. These foods include fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats. Keep in mind that diet is not the only way to avoid inflammation. Make sure to maintain a healthy weight and lifestyle filled with exercise, community, and passion.