Inflammatory Foods & Chronic Inflammation 101 – Mind Over Munch

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10 of The WORST Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

Chronic inflammation is a buzzword in the health and nutrition community lately—and with good reason. Recently, emerging research has discovered strong links between chronic inflammation and all kinds of serious, chronic diseases. From rheumatoid arthritis, to heart disease, to cancer, chronic inflammation is wreaking havoc in our bodies and damaging our health. But, too few of us are even aware of chronic inflammation in our bodies, or the inflammatory foods that we eat on a daily basis!

So, what is chronic inflammation? What’s it doing in our bodies? And what are the inflammatory foods that we need to avoid? The food we eat on a daily basis has a HUGE impact on our health! And, simple changes in diet can help reverse the effects of chronic inflammation—or even eliminate some of the serious health problems we suffer from.

Now, brace yourself. There’s a lot of information here, and it can feel overwhelming, a bit scary, or even maddening. But, there IS a message of hope. Ignorance is NOT bliss. Having this knowledge gives us the power to make changes that could change the course of our lives, and our health!

And, learn how to fight off existing inflammation with the 17 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Your Body Needs NOW!

What Is Inflammation?

Every human body comes equipped with its own high-quality security system. When the body detects an injury or an invader—like an allergen, bacteria, virus, or foreign pathogen of some kind—it springs into action with an inflammatory response. Inflammation is the immune system’s natural form of defense, working to fight off anything potentially harmful and help the body heal. So, not all inflammation is ‘bad!’

Then, as soon as that alarm sounds, the body mobilizes a crew of white blood cells to rush over to the area of concern and get to work. Often, this results in some redness, swelling, heat, and/or discomfort, but this is all part of the body protecting us. This acute inflammation is totally normal and helps the body heal! With an injury or allergen, the immune system does what’s necessary to disarm the alarm. Our immune system responds quickly, and the inflammation generally goes away once the injury heals or the ‘invader’ leaves.

If you’re allergic to pollen, your body senses pollen in your nose or eyes as a threat. It sounds the alarm, turns on the inflammatory response, and releases histamines to help get the invaders out of you. That’s why you might sneeze or your eyes get puffy and swollen. Those allergy symptoms (your allergic reaction) are the body’s attempt to keep you safe! (And, that’s why we take anti-histamines, to turn off our body’s histamine response and relieve those allergy symptoms.) But, there’s another, more sinister form of inflammation, a.k.a. the BAD inflammation: chronic inflammation.

Just one of the many amazing comics from Beatrix the Biologist (who’s amazing).

What is Chronic Inflammation? What Causes It?

We’ve known that chronic inflammation plays a role in certain diseases, like asthma, arthritis, and Crohn’s disease. Asthma is chronic inflammation of the airways. Arthritis is chronic inflammation of the joints. But, the medical field has only just begun to look at chronic inflammation as a treatable cause of many chronic diseases—rather than simply trying to treat their symptoms. A doctor often suggests or provides pain relievers for someone with arthritis who’s experiencing joint pain. Yet, alleviating symptoms does nothing to fix the actual problem in the body.

Now, there’s emerging understanding that chronic inflammation plays a major role in many serious, chronic diseases. For example, cardiologists now recognize that factors like high cholesterol are symptoms of heart disease. But, at its core, heart disease is chronic inflammation of the arteries. Currently, we’re learning that chronic inflammation either does or may play a role in countless serious conditions, like:

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Thanks to Dr. Jockers for this awesomely helpful diagram!

How to Reduce Inflammation in the Body

In case the health risks of chronic inflammation aren’t scary enough, you should know that it can also lead to plenty of other lifestyle problems. It can cause a lack of energy, skin and digestive issues, and reduction in healthy gut bacteria. And, chronic inflammation can also lead to weight gain, build belly fat, or make it more difficult to lose weight—even when we’re eating well and exercising! So, the obvious route is to start working on the core problem: reduce inflammation in the body. How do we do it?

Naturally, the food we eat on a daily basis is a significant factor in our health—including chronic inflammation. And, that’s why anti inflammatory foods and anti inflammatory diets have become so popular! (Check out the 17 Anti-Inflammatory Foods Your Body Needs NOW!) Luckily, changing our diet can alleviate, and sometimes eliminate, serious health conditions by reducing chronic inflammation. We have to tackle the causes of chronic inflammation (like inflammatory foods), so our immune system can function properly again.

Basic Steps to Reduce Chronic Inflammation in the Body:

Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

So, the first step is to identify the inflammatory foods in our diet. Most of these foods we already know are ‘unhealthy,’ or not-so-fuel-filled. But, even some seemingly ‘healthy’ foods can be pro-inflammatory! Now, due to individual sensitivities, certain foods (like dairy and gluten) can be inflammatory for some people but not for others. (Learn more about Food Sensitivities & Autoimmune Diseases!) But, some foods are pro-inflammatory for all of us—especially when we eat them often and consistently.

Here’s a brief list of the most common (and damaging) inflammatory foods, and you can find more detailed information about each below:

…So Many Inflammatory Foods…Cannot Compute…

We already know we should steer clear of some of these foods, like trans fats. And, it’s clear that limiting added sugars, processed foods, fried foods, and fast foods in our diet are all sound decisions for our health. But, some inflammatory foods—like vegetable oils, artificial low-calorie sweeteners, refined grains, and conventionally-raised meats—make their way into our diets all of the time. And, it’s this repeated (sometimes daily) exposure to inflammatory foods that poses the greatest risk to our health.

You may cook with certain vegetable oils, or not even realize that they sneak into SO many foods. (Even seemingly healthy foods, like protein bars). Often, try to be healthier by choosing sugar-free, low-sugar, or no-sugar-added products, like sodas or our coffee creamer. But, we then consume the artificial sweeteners used to replace the sugar. When we eat bread, we’re most often consuming highly-refined grains. And, many of us use that bread to make a sandwich with processed deli meat. So, do we have to cut out ALL of these common foods that we eat??

I know it’s overwhelming. I’m overwhelmed by it, too! But, whether you’re dealing with a serious health condition or just working toward your healthiest self, having this knowledge is power. Only YOU can decide how to use this knowledge and implement it in your life! Start with small steps, and identifying which inflammatory foods show up in your diet is step 1.

Artificial Trans Fats

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The Problem:

  • Artificial trans fats are manmade Unlike naturally-occurring trans fats in some meat and dairy, artificial trans fats don’t occur naturally in foods.
  • So, the body doesn’t know how to process them, registers them as a ‘foreign invaders,’ and launches an inflammatory response to itself.
  • And, trans fats are linked to heart disease and can be damaging even in small amounts!

Some Evidence

  • Research shows that eating more trans fats leads to more markers of inflammation in the body.
  • And, many studies confirm that higher consumption of trans fats can significantly increase the risk of heart disease. Even when trans fats made up just 2% of a person’s daily calorie intake, heart disease risk increased.
  • Artificial trans fats are so dangerous, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned them. By 2018, no foods in the U.S. can use manmade trans fats in their products.

What to Do:

Omega-6 Foods, Especially Vegetable Oils & Seed Oils

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The Problem:

  • Omega-6 fatty acids are essential. But, one of their main purposes is to help the body repair after strenuous activity or exercise—making them pro-inflammatory.
  • Most of us consume FAR too many inflammatory foods with omega-6s, and far too few anti-inflammatory omega-3s. Ideally, the ratio should be 1:1, but the average Western diet has a 20:1 ratio, resulting in a state of chronic inflammation in the body.
  • The major sources of omega-6s in most people’s diets today are vegetable and seed oils. These oils are now used in TONS of processed foods, fried foods, and for cooking at most restaurants, as a cheap and ‘healthier’ replacement for trans fats.
  • These oils are snuck into SO many common foods (many of which we eat every day). And, each little bit we consume adds up quickly.
  • Also, omega-6s are VERY reactive to heat. When cooked, they produce free radicals that attack our healthy cells. Those free radicals contribute to aging and a host of chronic diseases like cancer.

(Check out our post about balancing your Omega 6 Omega 3 Ratio to learn more!)

Some Evidence:

  • In Japan, despite higher rates of smoking and high blood pressure, the risk of heart disease is 87% lower than in the U.S. Researchers found that the body tissue in Japanese study participants was made from about 60% omega-3s and less than 40% omega-6s. But, in U.S. participants, omega-6s composed nearly 80% of their body tissue, increasing heart disease risk significantly.
  • In one study with rats, those with an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of 20:1 (like the typical Western diet today) had significantly higher levels of inflammatory markers than rats with a 1:1 or even 5:1 ratio.

What to Do:

Refined Sugars

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The Problem:

  • Table sugar (sucrose) is a carbohydrate made of glucose and fructose. If we consume too much glucose, the body can’t process it all. It sets off an alarm that we’re in a “toxic” state and tries to defend itself with an inflammatory response.
  • Sugar also weakens the immune system by suppressing the ability of our white blood cells to attack germs and foreign invaders.
  • High amounts of fructose (like in high-fructose corn syrup, NOT natural sources like fruits and veggies) can also cause and increase inflammation in the body. And, high fructose intake is also linked to obesity, insulin resistance, diabetes, and even some cancers.

Some Evidence:

  • Several studies in mice have shown that a high-sugar diet can lead to chronic inflammation and the development of cancer. And, eating lots of sugar can decrease in the anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3s.
  • A study in humans showed that simply drinking sugary sodas increased levels of uric acid in the body, which drives inflammation and insulin resistance. And, both inflammation and insulin resistance are key drivers in the development of type 2 diabetes, as well as cancer.
  • Recent research also revealed that a higher daily intake of added sugar measurably increases heart disease risk.

What to Do:

Learn More: Sugar & Sweeteners 101!

Simple, Refined Carbohydrates

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The Problem:

  • Simple and refined carbs (like sugar) are also known as high Glycemic Index (G.I.) foods. These generally cause larger blood sugar (a.k.a blood glucose) spikes. But, complex, unrefined carbs are low G.I. foods with the opposite effect.
  • Simple, refined carbs are highly processed, which removes most of their nutrients and fiber. This causes the body to break them down VERY quickly.
  • When blood sugar rises rapidly, insulin levels rise rapidly in response. Insulin has a pro-inflammatory response as it works to “detoxify” the body and get glucose levels under control.
  • And, without gut-friendly dietary fiber, refined carbs and grains encourage inflammatory gut bacteria to grow.
  • Also, new (faster) production methods now make the gluten in many store-bought breads harder for us to digest. This can cause an inflammatory response in our gut.

Some Evidence:

  • One study looked at middle- to older-aged adults who ate lots of high G.I. foods (specifically more refined sugars and refined starches). Those adults were almost 3 times more likely to die of an inflammatory disease! But, eating fruit (in part because of its fiber content) decreased risk of inflammatory death.
  • Researchers comparing modern diets to those of our ancestors note that today’s diets contain more refined flours, sugars, and processed foods. These kinds of refined carbs are far denser than the whole-foods forms our ancestors ate. They’re difficult for us to digest properly and promote the growth of inflammatory gut bacteria. And, this bad bacteria also makes it easier for us to gain weight and belly fat.
  • Refined carbs and high G.I. foods cause large blood sugar spikes., which leads to the development of insulin resistance over time. And, current research suggests that insulin resistance promotes a state of chronic inflammation. The body has to fights constantly to get glucose levels under control, resulting in repeated inflammatory responses.

What to Do:

Processed Foods, Fried Foods, & Fast Food

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The Problem:

  • Processed, fried, and fast foods may be the WORST inflammatory foods.
  • They contain SO many things that activate the body’s inflammatory response: artificial trans fats, vegetable and seed oils, refined sugars, high-fructose corn syrup, refined carbs and grains, artificial additives—the list could go on! Eating a lot of ANY of these would be a problem. But, processed, fried, and fast foods contain MANY of these inflammatory substances!
  • And, the major danger of these ‘convenience’ foods is that we tend to eat them frequently and consistently (sometimes every day).
  • Plus, because they’re made with vegetable oils, they contain large amounts of inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These compounds form (along with free radicals) when vegetable/seed oils are cooked, fried, grilled, pasteurized, smoked, or dried at high temperatures.
  • And, if it couldn’t get any worse, most fast food contains chemical toxins known as phthalates. These are used in plastic food or beverage packaging and can seep into the food, causing inflammation in our bodies.

Some Evidence:

  • In one study, participants who cut out processed and fried foods from their diet saw a decrease in both inflammation and oxidative stress (caused by free radicals).
  • Recent studies link greater fast food consumption to higher levels of phthalates in the body. And, those phthalates are associated with increased markers of inflammation.

What to Do:

Conventionally-Raised Meats & Processed Meats

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The Problem:

  • Conventionally-raised livestock today eat an unnatural diet of corn, soy, and grain products—because it’s cheap. But, these animals are meant to graze on pastures and eat grass!
  • Because of this, meat from conventionally-raised livestock has more inflammatory omega-6s, which we then eat. (Just like how corn and soy oils increase the omega-6 content in our bodies!)
  • And, to prevent their unnatural diet from making the animals sick (and to make them gain weight), they’re given hormones and antibiotics. Those substances are then present in the meat we eat and our bodies detect them as ‘foreign invaders.’ Naturally, the immune system tries to fight them off with an inflammatory response.
  • Much like other processed foods, processed meats are one of the worst inflammatory foods we can eat. Since they’re made from conventionally-raised livestock, our sausages, deli meats, and jerkies are also higher in omega-6s.
  • And, processed meats are high in inflammatory AGEs because the meats are cooked, dried, smoked, or pasteurized at high temperatures.

Some Evidence:

  • Fairly recent research discovered that AGEs are majorly prevalent in meat products after cooking in dry heat environments. But, that research also revealed that we can reduce the formation of AGEs in several ways. Cook with moist heat, cook for shorter time periods, cook at lower temperatures, or incorporate acidic substances into meat dishes (like lemon juice or vinegar).
  • MANY studies link processed meat consumption with the development of various cancers, along with heart disease and diabetes.
  • Researchers suspect that the colon’s inflammatory response to processed meats leads to colon cancer.

What to Do:

Artificial Sweeteners, Artificial Additives & Some Sugar Alcohols

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The Problem:

  • Similar to artificial trans fats, artificial sweeteners, colorings, and other additives aren’t found in nature. Typically, the body doesn’t know how to process them and treats them like ‘foreign invaders’—which means they’re inflammatory foods.
  • And, artificial sweeteners trick the body. We taste the sweetness and expect the glucose to follow as it does with sugar but it never comes. So, when our bodies can’t metabolize that expected glucose properly, it can cause inflammation (much like sugar and refined carbs do).
  • Artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols can also decrease the good bacteria in our gut. Normally, that good bacteria helps fight off gut inflammation.
  • Similarly, artificial additives like emulsifiers and thickeners can lead to inflammation (and weight gain) by disrupting our healthy balance of gut bacteria.
  • Plus, research links these artificial additives and colorings to TONS of other health problems, ranging from hyperactivity in children to increased tumor growth!

Some Evidence:

  • Studies in both mice and humans found that artificial sweeteners alter the balance of bacteria in the gut. This contributes to increased glucose intolerance, which is associated with type 2 diabetes.
  • And, some studies even link frequent diet-soda drinking with long-term weight gain.
  • Studies link several common food dyes to the development of cancer, as well as hyperactivity in children. (In fact, products with food dyes must come with a warning label in many European countries!)
  • Current research suggests that common emulsifiers (like carrageenan, lecithin, and xanthan gum) disrupt healthy gut bacteria. This can then lead to intestinal inflammation and serious digestive issues, like IBD and ulcerative colitis.
  • Some sugar alcohols (like erythritol) have little to no side effects. But, the FDA acknowledges that both sorbitol and mannitol can have a “laxative effect” when consumed in “excess” (which isn’t a very large amount). Especially if you already deal with IBS, IBD, or other gut issues, these sugar alcohols can worsen inflammation in the gut.

What to Do:

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Oy Vey…Now What?

I know that all of this information is overwhelming. As I’ve learned more about inflammatory foods and chronic inflammation, I find myself getting angry, terrified, and sad—sometimes all at once… It all feels so frightening! Really, how could we not know all of this?? Why aren’t we talking about it more? And, what the heck can I eat when SO many common foods are inflammatory foods?!

My best advice is to absorb what you can from this information and make changes in small, gradual steps. (That’s my approach, at least.) I know I won’t be able to cut out ALL of these foods from my diet all at once. And, I know that I will still eat some processed foods, sugars, sweeteners, fast food, conventionally-raised meats, and the like. Some of those foods I enjoy, and I know my budget won’t always allow me to buy things like grass-fed meat. But, my aim is to make those inflammatory foods occasional visitors to my body, rather than daily attackers on my immune system.

So, I try to remind myself that, even if this information can scare me a bit, having this knowledge is power. I have the power to DO something about what’s going on in my body, just by changing how I eat. And, transitioning away from inflammatory foods isn’t JUST about chronic inflammation. It’s also a great motivator to move towards eating more anti-inflammatory foods—and more healthy, wholesome, REAL foods in general. I do sincerely believe that we can gradually phase inflammatory foods out of our diets, until they are the exception instead of the rule in our bodies. And, I’m sure our bodies will thank us!

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