The 8 Worst Foods to Eat for Inflammation

Limiting your intake of these inflammatory foods can help reduce chronic inflammation and lead to better health.

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 some top foods that cause inflammation—and how to limit them.

1. 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. What's even scarier 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 Limit: The American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to no more than 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day for women and no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) for men. Tracking this can be easy since all food labels are now required to include added sugars.

2. 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. A 2022 study published in the Journal of Nutrition has linked regular intake of processed meats to an increased risk of inflammation, which many speculate is an effect of both nitrates and saturated fats.

How to Limit: The science isn't clear about exactly what the primary threat in processed meat stems from (nitrates, saturated 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.

3. 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 Limit: 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 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, keep looking.

burger and fries
Getty / Lisovskaya

4. 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. A 2018 study published in the American Journal of Physiology 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.

How to Limit: 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. A 2019 study published in Gut found that choosing whole grains reduced both body weight and inflammation in adults compared to refined grains.

5. Too Many Omega-6s (And 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. A 2021 study published in the Journal of Lipids suggests that most Americans 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 Limit: 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.

6. Trans Fats

Trans fats are created by chemically altering the structure of unsaturated fats to give processed foods a longer shelf life. But a 2021 study published in Frontiers in Immunology 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 diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

How to Limit: 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 margarine, snack foods and processed desserts. Fried foods and fast food can also be 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.

7. More Than Two Cocktails

According to a 2019 review published in Molecules, a glass of wine contains compounds that can fend off inflammation and oxidative stress, which can help prevent cardiovascular diseases. Resveratrol is a plant compound in red wine (and grapes) that's credited with anti-inflammatory effects. Just note that 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 research published in International Review of Neurobiology in 2022 shows that alcohol then triggers further inflammation in the body.

How to Limit: The key to drinking to reap potential health benefits is "moderate" consumption. The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 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.

8. 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 Limit: Minimize the 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 a 2022 review in Food Science & Nutrition suggesting that stevia may have antidiabetic and antihyperglycemic effects. Another option is to use regular sugar, or another sweetener like honey or maple, but less of it than you normally would.

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