You may have heard that inflammation is at the root of many ailments. To help minimize its effects, avoid foods that cause inflammation.
Inflammation is your body’s natural response to an infection, something toxic or an injury. If you get stung by a bee, the surrounding area becomes red, swollen, and possibly warm to the touch. If you eat something you’re allergic to, or foods that cause inflammation, you may get a scratchy throat or develop a stomach ache or diarrhea. In these examples, inflammation is a by-product of your body’s immune system working properly. Your body’s defenses are trying to either eliminate or isolate an intruder and begin the healing process.
When your immune system is overactive, your body is in a constant state (chronic) of inflammation, which has great destructive potential. This is evident in autoimmune diseases like diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and gastrointestinal diseases such as Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, in which your immune system mistakenly targets your own tissues.
What causes inflammation in the body?
Many things can cause inflammation. Some causes are nearly universal — bee stings, for example — but other causes of inflammation can be as individual as the people it afflicts. Stress, smoking, and exposure to toxins in the environment can all cause low-level, nearly imperceptible, chronic inflammation. Not exercising, genetic predisposition, and dietary choices are additional potential causes of chronic inflammation. These factors will affect individuals to different degrees and in different ways, but, if left unchecked, chronic inflammation can serve as the foundation for a whole variety of diseases, including cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. More recently, inflammation has also been associated with psychiatric disorders such as depression and schizophrenia.
According to Andrew Weil, MD, a Harvard-educated doctor and pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, what you eat has a profound influence on your state of inflammation. Weil, credited with developing the anti-inflammatory diet, believes that most people in North America and other developed parts of the world go through life in a pro-inflammatory state as a result of what they eat. On his website he states he’s convinced that “the single most important thing you can do to counter chronic inflammation is to stop eating refined, processed, and manufactured foods.”
As we all know, eating a balanced diet promotes health. There is truth in the saying “You are what you eat.” Although it’s unlikely that a single food or ingredient is responsible for all of your inflammation, minimizing your intake of processed foods and certain ingredients can help reduce inflammation and help get chronic conditions under control. For example, if you have arthritis, your body is in an inflammatory state, so avoiding foods that exacerbate inflammation could help calm your symptoms.
What you can do to reduce inflammation in your body
Stay away from foods that you have identified as “not agreeing” with you. You may find that over time you have developed new food allergies. If you’re not sure, eliminate a suspected culprit from your diet for a couple weeks and see if you notice a difference. Apart from specific foods that are known to cause reactions in people who have food sensitivities, there are whole groups of foods that cause inflammation in the general population.
Avoid foods that cause inflammation
- Refined and added sugar is common offender, appearing in sweets and foods you wouldn’t expect like chips, mustard, and cottage cheese. When you consume more sugar than your body can process, it increases levels of pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines. Sugar comes in many forms. Read labels for ingredients ending in “ose,” for example fructose, sucrose, dextrose, and glucose. Fructose in particular has been shown to trigger inflammation.
- Saturated fats trigger inflammation in fat (adipose) tissue. Saturated fats can come only from animal products and are solid at room temperature. Common culprits are red meat, cheeses, and butter.
- Trans fats have long been identified as a trigger of systemic inflammation. Trans fats are commonly found in fast foods and fried foods, and in processed snacks and pastries such as cookies, crackers and doughnuts, and margarine. Search food labels for “partially hydrogenated oil” and avoid foods containing it.
- Refined carbohydrates are ubiquitous — think white food — white flour, white rice, and white potatoes are good examples. Consuming these types of high-glycemic index foods fuels the production of advanced glycation end (AGE) products that stimulate inflammation.
- Dairy is a common allergen. If you develop an unusual amount of mucous after you eat cheese or drink a glass of milk, or if you develop diarrhea, hives, or bloating, stomach cramps, and gas, these are inflammatory responses and you are better off avoiding dairy foods.
- MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is a food additive that can trigger inflammation if you are sensitive to it. It is known by many names — calcium glutamate, magnesium glutamate, and yeast extract are a few to look for on food labels.
- Gluten, derived from wheat, barley and rye, and casein, found in dairy products, can trigger joint pain and gastrointestinal distress — forms of inflammation — in people who are sensitive them. Gluten also sets off an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine and may cause joint pain in people with celiac disease.
- Nightshades are a group of vegetables that includes tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, and potatoes, to which some people are sensitive. If eating these foods gives you a stomach ache, causes your mouth to swell or break out, or makes your throat or skin scratchy, avoid them.
- Peanuts are another common allergen that can be life threatening (anaphylaxis) for some people. Additionally, peanuts are prone to contamination from mold and fungus, which can set off allergic responses of their own.
- Artificial sweeteners are found in thousands of products. Although approved by the Food and Drug Administration, if you have an autoimmune disease and are sensitive to these chemicals, ingesting them can set off an inflammatory response. Artificial sweeteners also disrupt the good bacteria in your gut. These good bacteria help release anti-inflammatory compounds.
- Alcohol can have beneficial effects in moderation because it can reduce inflammation. But too much alcohol actually has the opposite effect. The process of breaking down alcohol generates toxins that can damage your liver, promote inflammation, and weaken your immune system.
- Artificial flavors and coloring should generally be avoided. If the word “artificial” appears on a food package, put it down. Certain foods should be avoided by people with specific conditions. For example, people with gout (a type of arthritis resulting from uric acid deposits in the joints) should avoid alcohol and foods that are high in purines, such as organ meats (liver, kidney), sardines, and anchovies.
If you have a health condition that is linked to chronic inflammation, talk to your doctor about whether you should avoid specific foods that cause inflammation, and how a good diet can help manage your condition.
Eat foods that fight inflammation
More research is needed to understand exactly how foods exacerbate inflammation. Until that is better understood, you can still help yourself by eating more foods that fight inflammation. These include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains and beans, healthy fats, fish and other seafood, skinless poultry, and other high-quality lean meats.
Staying away from your particular inflammatory triggers and minimizing your consumption of processed foods will go a long way toward improving your health and warding off the effects of chronic inflammation. Add in regular exercise, adequate sleep, stress reduction, and a daily cup (or two or three) of green tea and you are well on your way to recovering your health and warding off possible chronic conditions down the road.
March 18, 2020
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA