5 Foods that Cause Inflammation, According to Dietitians

Learn more about what foods cause inflammation—and what to eat instead.

Take one look at supermarket shelves or news coverage of health topics and it's clear that anti-inflammatory foods are one of the buzziest food trends of the decade. Science backs up the importance of the matter. But do you know what foods cause inflammation? "Inflammation is a naturally occurring process in the body, but when it goes wrong or goes on for too long, this is when our body becomes compromised," says Rania Batayneh, M.P.H., owner of Essential Nutrition For You and author of The One One One Diet. "Uncontrolled inflammation plays a role in certain disease states including cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and Alzheimer's."

Acute inflammation is a normal part of our body's defense system. It's how our immune system fights injury and infections. (That bump and bruise you get after hitting your shin on the open dishwasher door? That's acute inflammation coming in to help your cells in that area recover.)

Chronic inflammation, conversely, is a long-term response lasting months or years when the immune system fails to eliminate the problem or that stays active even after healing. White blood cells start to attack healthy tissues and organs, causing a chronic inflammatory process.

While you might not feel the difference immediately or ever, symptoms may include fatigue, anxiety, weight gain, pain, and more frequent-than-usual infections. Often you might not even notice the slow shift from healthy to inflamed.

Many times, chronic inflammation is triggered without a visible cause. Everything from environmental toxins like pollution to work and relationship stress and more can trigger a wildfire of inflammation. But in some cases, as with what's on our plate, the culprit is right in front of our eyes. Just as there are foods that can trigger your cells to calm down (aka, anti-inflame), there are certain foods that cause inflammation, when consumed frequently and in excess. We asked Batayneh and Rachel Fine, R.D., a registered dietitian and owner of the nutrition counseling firm To The Pointe Nutrition to share some of the worst food offenders.

The Top 5 Foods That Cause Inflammation in the Body

01 of 05

Added Sugars

Sugar in silver measuring cup with measuring spoons
Blaine Moats

Here's some not-so-sweet news: "For most Americans, the worst food for inflammation is sugar. It causes the body to release cytokines, which are inflammatory messengers," Batayneh says.

According to research published in the journal PLoS One, blood sugar highs and lows are linked to the development and/or progression of two of the most common inflammation-related diseases: Type 2 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Plain old white sugar isn't the only culprit, though. When considering foods that cause inflammation in the body, anything with lots of added syrups or sugars (we see you, soda and spaghetti sauces) can be a trigger.

Related: 10 Products That Help You Cut Out Sugar (Without Using Sugar Substitutes)

"High fructose corn syrup is a processed additive that is often added to packaged foods to help increase shelf life," Fine says. "Highly processed sugars like this, although not named 'sugar,' can hide in many packaged foods. This is true of even those not regarded as sweet, such as sauces, condiments, marinades, and savory fillings."

In addition to ingredient names with "sugar" and "syrup" included, watch out for any word on the nutrition facts panel that ends in -ose (like dextrose or maltose).

"If indulging in sugary treats excessively leaves your joints feeling stiffer and you find you have less energy the next day, you might be experiencing some of the signs of early inflammation in your body," Batayneh says.

02 of 05

Artificial Sweeteners

sweet'n low splenda equal truvia artificial sweetener packets
Marty Baldwin

Right up there with real sugar in the ranks for the worst foods for inflammation are "fake" ones.

"Artificially-sweetened foods and drinks are the absolute first place that I would encourage a person to start making changes," Batayneh says. "Aspartame, once metabolized, is made up of three substances: aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol, and is an artificial sweetener found in thousands of foods as well as diet soda."

Since the body views artificially-sweetened items—such as sugar-free candy, low-calorie juice drinks, and even many gums—as a foreign substance, your body may respond to it by attacking the chemical (which can lead to an inflammatory response).

03 of 05

Processed Meats

bacon frying oil grease sizzling in pan detail
Blaine Moats

It might be time to reexamine your relationship with that deli-sliced pastrami.

"Processed meat, including hot dogs, ham, bacon, sausage, and some deli meats are usually treated with nitrite and nitrogen oxides as means to preserve and retain flavor. These compounds are thought to contribute to the formation of inflammatory-producing nitrous compounds that have been associated with increased risk of certain chronic diseases like stomach cancer," Fine says.

Studies have proven that diets high in saturated fats, which are found in meat products that are not so lean, might increase risk for developing arthritis, Batayneh adds. (After you study up on all of the answers to "what are the worst foods for inflammation?" learn more about which fats are good for you and which ones aren't.)

04 of 05

Refined Carbs

Pasta Cacio e Pepe
Blaine Moats

With most of the fiber stripped away, refined grains get digested and converted into sugar quicker (in other words, are higher on the glycemic index) than their whole grain counterparts. Common foods that cause inflammation in this category include white rice, white pasta, white bread, breakfast cereals and more.

"The consumption of sugars found in refined carbohydrate products like white bread and pasta have been found to increase the formation of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), compounds linked to inflammation," Batayneh says.

Speaking of carbs and foods that cause inflammation, a certain wheat protein is also turning heads.

"The link between gluten and pain from arthritis is unclear and has not been confirmed by research, but some people believe that their arthritis symptoms worsen after eating a meal containing gluten," Batayneh says.

05 of 05

Excess Alcohol

3 glasses of white wine

Consume about one drink each day (12 ounces of beer, 1 ounce of liquor, or 5 ounces of wine), and your body will experience lower levels of some of the common markers of inflammation, per the Arthritis Foundation. But anything more than that and you could experience negative impacts from that over-imbibing.

Too much alcohol can lead to leaky gut, which allows inflammation-triggering bacteria to escape from the stomach and intestines and enter the blood—causing an inflammatory response, according to research in the World Journal of Gastroenterology.

Related: Looking to Stock Your Bar? Learn What Cocktail Essentials You Need to Make Mixed Drinks

The bottom line: "If you have no known medical reason to eliminate foods but feel better when you consume it less often, then put that plan into action," Batayneh says. "There really isn't any sort of food prescription on how often you should or shouldn't eat a specific food. If you're really suffering from inflammation, then it is advisable to bring more structure—not restriction—in your diet and build a diet and lifestyle that helps to manage your symptoms."

Listen to your body. If you feel better after two weeks of going gluten-free or after you've said "farewell" to fried food, then you might want to find alternative food options to round out your diet.

Now that we've covered the foods that cause inflammation, a quick word about foods that may reduce inflammatory risk.

"It's best to include whole plant-based foods rich in colors," Fine says. "Think fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, herbs, and spices with an eye toward 'eating a rainbow' of produce. Foods high in omega-3 fats such as flaxseeds and wild fish promote antioxidative and anti-inflammatory capacities as well."

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