Some of these inflammatory foods may surprise you.

Carolyn Williams, Ph.D., R.D.
February 26, 2020
Each product we feature has been independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.

From added sugars to trans fats, research has revealed a pretty extensive list of ingredients or components in our food supply that lead to inflammation. Sure, there are lists circulating with foods to avoid consuming, but what specific foods are some of the worst for inflammation?

We've pulled together a list of some grocery items that have the most inflammatory potential. It's worth thinking twice before you put these inflammation-causing foods in your shopping cart.

1. Hot Dogs

We hate to shun this ballpark classic, but research has clearly established a link between frequent intake of processed meats like hot dogs with increased inflammation, as well as certain cancers. Processed meats include hot dogs, as well as foods like bacon, some lunch meats and pepperoni. The problem with is that they not only are they high in saturated fat, but they're also high in sodium due to curing additives like salt and synthetic nitrates.

Healthier alternative: It's not clear where most of the harm in processed meats stems from—sat fat, sodium, nitrates or some combination of these things—so it's best to limit your overall consumption. When you do eat processed meats, try to choose "uncured" options, and keep tabs on that days sodium and saturated fat intake. You could also swap out the meat entirely and make one of our BBQ Carrot Dogs!

2. Diet Sodas or Drink Mixes

Most sugar substitutes in food and drink products are artificial chemical compounds like aspartame and saccharine, which initial research suggests may alter our good gut bacteria. How does this affect inflammation? In a healthy gut, those bacteria serve as a protective barrier between the intestines and the rest of the body, so when our microbiome becomes unbalanced, it means more foreign compounds or irritants are able to "leak" into our bloodstream and trigger inflammation. In addition, the body may consider those sweet chemical foreign bodies or irritants, triggering inflammation.

Healthier alternative: Opt for other low- or no-calorie options like fizzy or flavored waters, unsweetened tea or coffee (just keep add-ins like cream and sugar to a minimum).

Related: 10 Ways to Reduce Inflammation

3. Flavored Applesauce

Pink, strawberry-flavored applesauce may appeal to your kids, but with added sugars, artificial colors and flavorings, this is one lunchbox staple to skip. Excess added sugars are considered a major contributor to inflammation, which increases our risk of chronic diseases like obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Synthetic dyes and additives may also irritate the body—particularly if it's hypersensitive due to existing inflammation.

Healthier alternative: Skip the sugar and dyes by choosing unsweetened applesauce or making your own applesauce at home (it's actually pretty easy!). Or, pack apple slices instead.

4. Boxed Macaroni and Cheese

Refined grains that have been stripped of fiber and other nutrients are what make up the majority of processed foods like boxed mac and cheese or packaged noodles—and research has linked refined grains with increased inflammation due to the sharper, faster effect they elicit on blood sugar levels. In addition, these mixes may include colorings, additives and high levels of sodium that can further encourage inflammation.

Healthier alternative: Choose whole grains like brown rice, whole-wheat pasta and quinoa whenever possible, and look for ready-to-heat or quick-cooking versions that you season yourself. We love these microwaveable pouches of whole grains from Seeds of Change (You can buy 6 pouches for $11 on Amazon).

5. High-Fat Grilled Meats

Higher-fat meats like burgers or steak are delicious, but they're also naturally higher in saturated fats, a diet component that is directly linked to increased inflammatory markers in the body. But cooking those meats on a hot grill can add further to their inflammatory potential due to AGEs (advanced glycation end products) that form. AGEs are compounds created as a result of high-heat cooking, and research has associated them with increased inflammation and development or progression of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes.

Healthier alternative: Choose leaner cuts of meat that are lower in both total fat and saturated fat, and only grill at higher heats for short periods of time. If meat needs to be cooked longer, finish off the cooking process in the oven at a lower temp. (Check out our healthy grilling recipes for inspo!)

Related: These 8 Summer Foods Can Help Reduce Inflammation

6. Bottled Dressings

Unsaturated fats are the "healthy" ones, but it's key to consume a balance of two key ones, omega-6 and omega-3. Most Americans way over-consume omega-6 and way under-consume omega-3, and this imbalance is considered a key contributor to inflammation. It's also attributed to our high intake of processed foods which predominantly use refined oils that are heavy in omega-6—such as corn, soybean and sunflower—and many bottled salad dressings rely on these to make up the bulk of their product.

Healthier alternative: Look for bottled salad dressings that are made using an omega-3-rich oil like extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, walnut oil or flax oil (we like these ones from Primal Kitchen). Or whisk together a quick dressing using one of these oils (you can store your homemade versions in a salad dressing container). Additionally, incorporating more omega-3 fat sources like salmon several times a week can also help with correcting the omega imbalance.

7. Icing

Icings and frostings have a consistency that's creamy, but still spreadable. However, they typically get these characteristics because they have a shortening base made from hydrogenated vegetable oils. This means they're a prime source of trans fats, which are considered one of the top inflammatory diet components. Adding in lots of sugar and food colorings to this shortening only adds to the frosted treat's inflammatory potential.

Healthier alternative: It's okay to occasionally eat a slice of cake or a cupcake, but skip the sweet treats made from large manufacturers and retailers whenever possible. When you do want to enjoy, go to a local bakery where you can ask about ingredients, or even custom order what type is used. Even better, make frosting from scratch that uses an alternative fat source.

8. Another Cocktail or Glass of Wine

A small amount of any alcohol—not just wine—appears to have a slight anti-inflammatory effect, particularly when it comes to heart health and easing symptoms related to inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis. But it's easy to cross the line from beneficial to harmful. And when you do, you not only lose those anti-inflammatory benefits, but you can also trigger inflammation.

Healthier alternative: Reap potential health benefits by consuming alcohol in moderation (defined as ≤1 drink/day for women, ≤2 drinks/day for men), and stopping after 1 to 2 drinks. If mixing liquor, watch the calories and added sugars in your cocktail by using a low- or no-calorie mixer. (Try these healthy cocktail recipes for your next party!)

Related: The 10 Best Anti-Inflammatory Foods for Weight Loss

9. Breakfast Pastries

They're quick, convenient and loved by both kids and adults, but this breakfast comes at a price. Made with refined flour, breakfast pastries are loaded with added sugar, artificial colorings, flavorings and other additives to make them shelf-stable. Any of these can act as an irritant to the body, triggering or exacerbating existing inflammation.

Healthier alternative: If you're craving something sweet for breakfast, consider making a smoothie with frozen fruit and yogurt or a topping a slice of whole-grain toast with nut butter and a touch all-fruit spread. For savory options, keep hard-boiled eggs on hand or toss together a quick breakfast salad with citrus and avocado.

Carolyn Williams, PhD, RD, is author to the new cookbook, Meals That Heal: 100+ Everyday Anti-Inflammatory Recipes in 30 Minutes or Less, and a culinary nutrition expert known for 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.

Advertisement