Inflammation is complicated, and the triggers for it differ for every person. Research on inflammation is ever-evolving and complex. Sleep, for instance, can play a role, as can stress, physical activity or other aspects of your health. Diet has been linked to inflammation too, and the foods you choose to eat have a huge impact on your health. Before we get into what foods are the most inflammatory, it’s important to know more about what inflammation even is.
There are two kinds of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is the immune system’s response to injury or infection. For instance, If you scrape your knee, your immune system releases white blood cells to protect the area, causing redness and swelling. Infections like the flu trigger a similar response to fight off the sickness.
Certain foods, when eaten in excess, have been linked to worsened inflammation and increased risk for chronic disease. To reduce your risk of long-term illness, consider cutting the following from your diet.
The American Heart Association recommends a daily intake of 6 teaspoons of sugar for women and 9 teaspoons for men. Pushing the limit could raise your blood pressure and increase your risk of chronic inflammation, which could lead to heart disease, diabetes, fatty liver disease and, eventually, heart attack and stroke. Meanwhile, foods with natural sugar like fruits, vegetables and whole grains are part of a healthy diet and are among the best foods for heart health.
Food manufacturers use added sugars to add flavor to or increase the shelf life of products. Though some separate them, many nutrition labels show the combined amount of both natural and added sugars, so to find out if what you’re eating has added sugar, you have to check the list of ingredients. Look for words ending in “ose,” like sucrose or maltose. Other ingredients to keep an eye out for include: high fructose corn syrup, molasses, cane sugar, corn sweetener, raw sugar, syrup, honey or fruit juice concentrates.
To make sure you’re picking better-for-you breakfast cereals, check the nutrition label for a short list of easily recognizable ingredients, at least 3 grams of fiber and fewer than 8 grams of sugar per serving. Fiber is an anti-inflammatory and sugar, especially added sugar, could trigger inflammation, increasing the risk of heart disease. Other sources of sugar and added sugar include flavored yogurts, cookies, cakes and candy.
Sugary beverages can lead to inflammation, just like desserts can. This doesn’t just include the obvious, like soda, but fruit juice, sports drinks and energy drinks too. Chocolate milk and some milk alternatives can also be hidden sources of sugar.
Some condiments contain a decent amount of sugar. Fat-free salad dressings, barbeque sauce, pancake syrup and ketchup are just a handful of unsuspecting culprits.
Margarine is a substitute for butter and tastes just as good on pancakes, toast and other dishes. Margarine has less saturated fat than butter, but it often contains trans fats, which are considered the worst type of fat for the body — one reason being that it causes inflammation and heart issues. Any product with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil will contain trans fats. Luckily, trans fats have been phased out of many foods, so there are types of margarine available that do not have trans fat. Be sure to check the nutrition label.
Shortening is a type of fat used in cooking and baking. Like margarine, it’s traditionally made from hydrogenated oil, which has a high concentration of trans fat. Many brands have reformulated their recipes to make their products trans-fat free, so make sure to check the label.
Fried foods, particularly those from fast food joints, may contain trans fats. Many restaurants use trans fats in frying oil intentionally because those oils last longer in the fryer. But the vegetable oils most chains now use contain small amounts of trans fat, and the more the oil is reused, the more trans fats will be present.
Carbohydrates in general can be really good for you — they’re the body’s preferred source of energy — but if you eat too many of the wrong kind, you’re in trouble. Refined carbs, for example, have had most of their nutrients and fiber removed. They’re digested quickly and have a high glycemic index, which leads to rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, and inflammation.
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Refined grains have been ground into flour or meal, increasing shelf life but stripping out nutrients including B-vitamins, iron and dietary fiber. Refined grains include white and wheat flours, white rice and couscous. Many cereals, crackers, desserts, pastries, corn tortillas and pasta are made with refined grains too.
Mass-produced baked goods such as pies, doughnuts and cakes are two-fold offenders. The excess sugar in these products could cause inflammation, and they might also include trans fats.
In addition to alcohol’s link to cancer and other diseases, research shows that heavy drinking significantly contributes to systemic inflammation. Alcohol impairs the balance of healthy bacteria in the gut, the liver’s ability to detoxify and the brain’s ability to regulate inflammation.
Red meat like beef, pork and lamb have more saturated fat than chicken and fish, according to the American Heart Association. It’s OK to eat meat as long as you limit your intake to 5.5 ounces, cooked, per day. Eating in excess could raise your blood cholesterol, trigger inflammation and contribute to heart disease among other chronic illnesses. One portion of meat is 2 to 3 ounces, or the size of a deck of cards. Choose lean cuts, which usually contain the words “round,” “loin” or “sirloin” on the package. Trim off as much fat as you can before cooking and pour off melted fat when it’s done. Baking, stewing and roasting are the healthiest cooking methods.
When meats are cooked at high temperatures, they produce compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). At low levels, your body can eliminate these compounds from your system efficiently enough to prevent harm. However, studies show that large amounts of the compound in the tissues and blood can increase inflammation. Beef, pork and fish contain more AGEs than grilled chicken or lamb, though the compounds are present in both.
Like grilled meats, processed meats tend to have more AGEs than other types. Foods like hot dogs and sausage generally contain saturated fats too, which could trigger fat tissue inflammation. Avoid deli meats, bacon and pepperoni that have been altered and cooked with hydrogenated oils with saturated and/or trans fats.
When you start to sneeze, tear up or itch, your histamines are trying to get rid of an allergen in your body. If you are often exposed to an allergen you respond to, research shows you may experience chronic inflammation, which could cause other health issues.
Some foods can cause chronic inflammation, and others can prevent or lower the severity of it. An anti-inflammatory diet should include tomatoes, fruits, nuts, olive oil, leafy greens and fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, tuna and sardines. While you're at it, add some of the best heart healthy foods to your diet, too.
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