Inflammation is complicated, and the triggers for it differ for every person. Research on inflammation is ever-evolving and complex — diet is just one of many triggers that could cause it. Sleep, for instance, can play a role, as can stress, physical activity or other aspects of your health. Certain foods and dietary patterns have also been linked to inflammation.
What is inflammation?
Inflammation is an essential part of your immune system response, which occurs in response to trauma or a perceived threat. There are two types of inflammation: acute and chronic. Acute inflammation is not harmful. It occurs in response to an injury, such as a cut or bruise, allowing your body to heal and repair. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, can be harmful. It occurs when the immune system is flared up too often. Immune activity can become the new norm. This is believed to increase risk of disease over time. Diseases linked to inflammation include (but are not limited to) diabetes, heart disease, depression, autoimmune disorders and inflammatory bowel disease.
Research has linked excess consumption of certain foods to worsened inflammation. Were you to eat these foods on occasion, chronic inflammation probably wouldn’t happen as a result of your diet. Were you to eat these foods frequently or in excess, the chances of inflammation are much higher. It’s hard to say that eating one specific food “causes” inflammation, cancer, diabetes or another other health condition. Rather, research focuses on broader dietary patterns and long-term outcomes. But it’s still good to know which foods cause inflammation so you can be aware of your eating patterns and stay informed. Here are some foods linked to chronic inflammation.
There are different types and sources of sugar, but the most common sugar present in the American diet is sucrose. Sucrose has been linked to inflammation in multiple studies, as it seems to impair anti-inflammatory processes in the body. Sugars are present not only in more concentrated sources such as soda and baked goods, but also in other products you eat daily. While eating some sugar isn’t going to kill you, eating too much sugar is going to cause some not-so-great symptoms, as well as negative health effects over time.
High-fructose corn syrup
Glucose and fructose are two types of simple sugars. While sucrose is made of around 50 percent glucose and 50 percent fructose, high-fructose corn syrup has more fructose than glucose. This type of sugar is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Studies have shown that while high-fructose corn syrup is not any worse that sucrose in terms of inflammation, it still causes a similar amount.
Margarine is a type of fat that is solid at room temperature and used as a replacement for butter. Margarine often contains trans fats, which have been shown to cause inflammation and increase risk of disease. Any product with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil will contain trans fats. Since trans fats have been phased out of most foods, there are types of margarine available that do not have trans fats.
Shortening, like margarine, is a fat that is solid at room temperature. Also like margarine, it was traditionally made with hydrogenated oils linked to inflammation. Some brands have reduced the amount of trans fats used in production to a level that permits the label “zero trans fats.” But this label is permitted so long as the amount of trans fats is below 0.5 grams. The shortening you buy with this label may still have trace amounts of trans fats. A better way to ensure you’re steering clear of these harmful compounds? Read the ingredients list. If trans fats are present, the hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil will be listed on the label.
In general, popcorn is actually quite a healthy snack. But, though you might think they’re all the same, there’s a ton of variety in the types of buttered popcorn you see at the supermarket. While most do not, some kinds still contain partially hydrogenated oils — and, as a result, trans fats.
Fried foods, particularly those from fast food joints, may contain trans fats. It was once common practice to 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. Hidden trans fats are just one of the many things fast food companies don’t want you to know about.
Store-bought baked goods
Mass-produced baked goods such as mini pies, doughnuts and cakes are two-fold offenders when it comes to inflammation. The excess sugars could be inflammatory, and those snack cakes might also include trans fats. Not all of these products contain trans fats, and the number of products that do has declined rapidly in recent years. However, some products made with them still exist.
Vegetable and seed oils
Vegetable and seed oils contain larger amounts of omega-6 fatty acids. These fats are important for your health, but some people eat too many of them. An excess of omega-6 fatty acids is thought to increase inflammation, and some studies support this. However, some other studies show that there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that omega-6 fatty acids have an effect on inflammatory markers. Most experts agree that more research is needed before any official recommendations can be made.
Not all carbohydrate sources affect the body in the same way. Carbs in general can be really good for you — they’re the body’s preferred source of energy, and many carb-heavy foods such as wheat bread, brown rice, potatoes and fruit contain important nutrients and benefits. Cutting out carbohydrates can have all kinds of strange effects on your body. Refined carbohydrates are a category of foods that have had most of the fiber removed. Fiber is beneficial for your gut bacteria and aids in digestion. Studies show that eating refined carbohydrates in excess can cause inflammation in the body. It’s thought that the lack of fiber can contribute to the growth of “bad” bacteria in the gut that fuel inflammation.
There are a number of reasons drinking too much alcohol is bad for you, and this is one of them. In addition to alcohol’s link to cancer and other diseases, studies have shown that alcohol significantly increases inflammatory markers. The more alcohol you drink, the worse the inflammatory response becomes.
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, if you eat too many of them, there can be consequences. Studies show that ingesting large amounts of AGEs can increase inflammation. Eating too many grilled meats or meats cooked at higher temperatures can result in inflammation, even though grilling is otherwise thought of as a typically healthy method of cooking. Red meat contains more AGEs than grilled chicken, though the compounds are present in both.
Like grilled meats, processed meats tend to have more AGEs than other types. AGEs aren’t the only concern with processed meat — here are some additional things you should know about how they can impact your health.
Foods you’re allergic to
Inflammation is actually an immune response. Histamines trigger inflammation. So when you eat foods that you’re allergic to, inflammation occurs as a result. If you are often exposed to an allergen you respond to, research shows you may experience chronic inflammation, which can in turn cause other health issues. Allergies are often misunderstood, and people will erroneously self-diagnose. If you suspect you may be allergic to a food, talk to your doctor.