This list of pro-inflammatory foods can help you decide which foods to limit in your diet for better health.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD
September 12, 2019
Getty / Lisovskaya

Inflammation is a hot topic and for good reason: research links chronic, low-grade inflammation with many of today's major health issues, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer's disease.

Most advice seems to focus on the top anti-inflammatory foods to eat. However, increasing these foods is only one part of the equation. When it comes to reducing chronic inflammation in the body, it's just as important to reduce food components that may be triggering and aggravating existing inflammation.

Here are those top inflammatory foods—and how to minimize them.

Added Sugars

Americans' consumption of excess added sugars is considered a major contributor to inflammation, which in turn increases one's potential for chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And what's scary is just how prevalent the addition of sugars has become in food products—added sugar can be found in sneaky places like salad dressings, condiments and savory snack foods.

How to Avoid or Minimize: The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons (about 24 grams) per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons (about 36 grams) for men. Tracking this may be hard, since not all food labels include added sugars. The mandatory compliance date to add this to the Nutrition Facts label is January 2020 for most manufacturers. Until then, you can keep tabs on added sugar by checking out the ingredient list. Look first to see if you see a sweetener, sugar or syrup listed (see our list for all the names for added sugar). Then, if you do, look at where it falls on that list of ingredients. The closer a sweetener is to the end of the ingredient list, the less of it the food contains, since ingredients are listed in descending order by weight.

Related: The Anti-Inflammatory Diet: Is It Right for You?

Processed Meats

Most processed meats like bacon, hot dogs, pepperoni and lunch meats are cured with salt and synthetic nitrates. These meats are also often high in saturated fat. Research has linked regular intake of processed meats to an increased risk of inflammation and some cancers, which many speculate is an effect of both nitrates and saturated fats.

How to Avoid or Minimize: The science isn't clear about exactly what the primary threat in processed meat stems from (nitrates, sat fat or processed meats as a whole), so the best advice is to limit your overall consumption. When you do eat processed meats, opt for "uncured" meats, which should mean that they were treated with only salt rather than cured with nitrates.

Highly Processed Foods

Consumers want quick, convenient food options, and manufacturers have responded by offering more ready-to-eat meals and grab-and-go foods than ever. But this convenience comes at a price, since chemicals and compounds not naturally found in food like artificial colors, flavorings and preservatives are often added to make these products shelf-stable or to improve taste and appearance. Any of these can irritate the body, triggering inflammation. And if it already has some existing inflammation, the body may be hypersensitive to these foreign particles, which can increase inflammation and exacerbate issues.

How to Avoid or Minimize: Healthy can still mean quick if you select minimally processed convenience products. To do this, make the ingredient list the first thing you look at. Typically, the shorter the list, the better. Then, see if you recognize and can pronounce the ingredients. A trick that I like to use when looking at the ingredients list is to ask, "If I were making this at home from a recipe, would most of these ingredients be in it?" If not, I keep looking.

Related: Packaged Foods You Can Feel Good About Eating

Refined Carbs

Eating pasta, white rice, bread and other carb-rich foods that are primarily composed of refined flour or grains elicits a quicker and often greater effect on blood sugar. Research has directly linked foods that have a greater impact on blood sugar with increased inflammation that puts one at higher risk for obesity, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and other inflammatory conditions.

Related: 7-Day Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Plan: 1,200 Calories

How to Avoid or Minimize: Choose whole grains and 100% whole-grain products whenever possible, and don't forget that grains aren't the only place to get complex carbs. You can get them from beans, peas, sweet potatoes and other starchy vegetables that are also high in fiber and nutrients. Watch out for products labeled "wheat" or "multi-grain," since this doesn't mean the product is 100% whole grain or even made from any whole grains. Again, look at the ingredients list: the first ingredient should be a whole grain.

Too Many Omega-6s (& Not Enough Omega-3s)

Mono- and polyunsaturated fats are what most know as the "healthy" ones, and they are made up of different proportions of fatty acids—two key ones are omega-6s and omega-3s. Research suggests that most American are way overconsuming omega-6 fatty acids, largely due to the heavy use of vegetable oils like corn, soybean and sunflower in processed and convenience foods. And it seems that we are way underconsuming omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory powerhouses. The overall effect is an imbalance that may contribute to low-grade systemic inflammation.

How to Avoid or Minimize: First, make a point to get in good sources of omega-3s each week by eating fatty fish like salmon or mackerel, as well as walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Then, start looking at the oils you cook with or consume. Oils contain a mix of fatty acids, so the secret is choosing ones that have a higher proportion of omega-3s, like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil, flax oil, peanut oil, corn oil and canola oil.

RELATED: 10 Ways to Reduce Inflammation

Trans Fats

Trans fats are created by chemically altering the structure of unsaturated fats to give processed foods a longer shelf life. But research suggests that trans fats are even more harmful to the body than the saturated fat found in butter and red meat. This is largely due to the inflammatory reaction they create in the body that's linked to chronic disease like diabetes and heart disease.

How to Avoid or Minimize: Steer clear of trans fats by avoiding foods that have "hydrogenated" or "partially hydrogenated" oils listed in the ingredient list. They're sometimes found in margarines, snack foods and processed desserts. Fried foods and fast food are also sources of trans fats, so aim to choose those less often. Many of the partially hydrogenated oils in our food supply have been phased out, so you're not as likely to see them as you were a decade ago.

More Than Two Cocktails

A glass of wine is associated with reducing cardiovascular risk, and some research suggests wine's resveratrol can reduce the severity of rheumatoid arthritis (learn more about the health benefits of wine). Resveratrol is a plant compound in red wine (and grapes) that's credited with aanti-inflammatory effects; reduced inflammation has also been linked to moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages in general. But it's easy to cross the line from beneficial to harmful. And when you cross that line, not only are the anti-inflammatory perks lost, but alcohol then triggers additional inflammation in the body.

How to Avoid or Minimize: The key to drinking to reap potential health benefits is "moderate" consumption, which is considered no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Also, be aware of the calories in the cocktail you choose. Minimize calories and added sugars from alcohol by choosing a glass of wine, a light beer or a serving of liquor mixed with a low- or no-calorie mixer.

Related: These 8 Summer Foods Can Help Reduce Inflammation

Artificial Sweeteners

Though artificial sweeteners are all deemed relatively safe by the Food and Drug Administration, most of the ones you see on restaurant tables and in food products are sweet-tasting synthetic chemical compounds like aspartame and saccharine. And—particularly if there's already some low-level inflammation—the body may consider these foreign bodies or irritants.

How to Avoid or Minimize: Minimize use of artificial sweeteners in general, and when you do need to use one, opt for a plant-based sweetener like stevia. The research surrounding stevia is primarily positive, with some even suggesting that stevia may improve blood glucose and insulin response following a meal. Another option is to use regular sugar, or another sweetener like honey or maple, but less of it than you normally would.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D., author of the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, is a culinary nutrition expert known for her ability to simplify food and nutrition information. She received a 2017 James Beard Journalism award. You can follow her on Instagram @realfoodreallife_rd or on carolynwilliamsrd.com.

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