The Best and Worst Carbs to Eat for Inflammation
Eating an anti-inflammatory diet isn't just about eating salmon, spinach and almonds; a large part of reducing inflammation actually has to do with the type of carbs you eat. In fact, the carbs you eat have a much bigger impact on inflammation than what you'll gain from eating a few anti-inflammatory foods. So, what's the connection between carbs (including grains, fruits, veggies and dairy items) and inflammation?
The body has a two-sided relationship with carbohydrates. Not only are they a primary energy source, but carbs are the only natural source of dietary fiber, which has a positive impact on inflammation in terms of glycemic response (or how quickly a food increases your blood sugar) and gut health. And carb-rich foods in their whole state (or minimally processed—think whole-wheat bread vs. white bread) are packed with powerful antioxidants and bioactive compounds that can prevent free radical damage and reduce inflammation.
But on the flip side, your blood sugar can spike from eating too many refined, low-fiber carbs. Additionally, carbohydrates with added sugar (think: sweets or processed bread) can increase inflammation in the body. In fact, the effect that carbs have on blood sugar—whether that's slow and steady or a sudden spike—is considered a primary driver of inflammation. Not to mention, eating too many refined carbs or items with lots of added sugar can lead to weight gain which further drives inflammation.
The Best Carbs for Inflammation
Pictured Recipe: Spicy Shrimp Tacos
1. Corn Tortillas
Switching to corn tortillas is an easy way to reduce inflammation, since they trigger less of a glycemic response because they're lower in calories and carbs and higher in fiber than flour tortillas. They also tend to be much more filling. Toast them slightly with a touch of oil or cooking spray in the skillet before serving for best flavor and texture. Try making your own corn tortillas and putting them in our Summer Corn Tortilla Soup or stuffing them with our Grilled Fish Taco filling.
Berries—strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and others—are top carb-containing fruits for two reasons. First, they're packed full of antioxidant compounds that have both anti-inflammatory and protective effects from new inflammation. Second, berries also have a lower glycemic impact (because they're full of fiber) in comparison to others like grapes and bananas. Sprinkle them on top of your oatmeal or use them in a healthier dessert, like our Mini Berry Cream Pies recipe.
Strengthening gut health by increasing foods with probiotics is essential in fighting inflammation, and one of the best ways to do this is to consume yogurt with live bacteria cultures on a regular basis. Choose regular or Greek yogurt with a label that specifies "active, live cultures" and opt for "plain" to avoid added sugars; then add fresh fruit and a drizzle of honey for sweetness.
All beans and legumes are great carb options since they're packed with fiber, protein and potassium and have a lower impact on glucose than many grains and other carb sources. But, edamame offers a little extra since it also contains isoflavones, bioactive compounds that appear to specifically target inflammatory molecules in the body. Use up your edamame in our tasty Edamame & Veggie Rice Bowl.
5. Sweet Potatoes
Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes can—and should—be part of an anti-inflammatory diet. They're a great way to meet daily carb needs, and they have an even lower glycemic impact than brown rice or whole-wheat bread. These spuds offer additional anti-inflammatory potential by being loaded with vitamin C and beta-carotene, two protective antioxidants. Turn a humble sweet potato into a delicious lunch by making our Stuffed Sweet Potato with Hummus Dressing.
6. Veggie Noodles and "Rice"
Many benefit by not only lowering overall carb intake, but also by getting a higher proportion of carbs from vegetables. To do both, swap carb-rich foods like pasta and rice for zucchini spirals and riced cauliflower or broccoli. Cauliflower and broccoli offer extra perks since they contain sulfur-containing compounds that have powerful anti-inflammatory effects.
Whole grains boast extra fiber, protein and nutrients, but vary greatly in how they impact blood sugar. Quinoa is a good option because it has a lower glycemic index compared to brown rice or whole-grain breads and pastas. Other goods ones are barley, farro and whole oats.
8. Legume-based Pastas
Craving pasta? Try one of the newer pastas that are made with flour from chickpeas, fava beans or lentils. Legume-based pastas have more protein, fiber and other nutrients compared to refined and whole-grain options to increase satiety and minimize glycemic impact.
9. Dark Chocolate
Some days just call for a bite of something sweet, and it's okay to incorporate some treats with added sugars periodically and in moderation. One of the best ways to do this is opt for a 1-ounce serving of dark chocolate. Look for a chocolate made with 70% or more cacao, which will have more anti-inflammatory polyphenols and usually only a few grams of added sugar. Top a chocolate square with a little nut butter for a more-filling sweet treat!
Worst Carbs for Inflammation
1. Doughnuts and Breakfast Pastries
The dough may be fried or baked with butter and lard. Either way, flaky breakfast pastries are a source of saturated, which are top inflammatory components. Adding super-sweet glazes, icings and fillings just spurs inflammation on further. (Craving a donut? Try one of our healthier donut recipes!)
2. Brightly Colored Candy
Concentrated sources of sugar have an immediate impact on blood sugar, and you can feel the sugar rush. But not long after that, you'll feel blood sugar drop. The rollercoaster effect taxes the body and leads to inflammation, and bright artificial colorings can act as irritants that lead to additional inflammation.
3. Sugar-Sweetened Drinks
Sugary sodas are obvious inflammation triggers, so drinks like lemonade or sweet tea may seem like a much better choice. However, they really aren't much better because they contain comparable amounts of sugar, and excess sugar has the same effect on the body no matter where it comes from.
4. Muffins or Bagels
Though muffins or bagels look a lot healthier than a doughnut or cinnamon roll, and they do often have less added sugar, these breakfast treats are usually oversized and made with refined flours. The result is way more carbs than most need at a meal and a glycemic impact that's similar to a doughnut.
5. Packaged Snack Foods with More Than 5 Ingredients
Not all packaged snack foods are bad (in fact, here are some of our favorite ones). However, if that packaged snack food has five or more ingredients—especially a few you've never heard of—then it's a safe bet that's not a healthy one. It probably also has an assortment of inflammatory triggers that may include refined flours, added sugars, artificial colors and chemical additives and compounds.
6. Specialty Coffee Drinks
They're easy to forget about, but coffee drinks can be a major source of calories and carbs, thanks to added syrups and sugars. And while a cup of coffee or two is fine, consuming anything in excess—including caffeine—can lead to inflammation. Keep tabs not only what's going in your coffee, but also on how much you're getting in a day.
7. High-Added Sugar Cocktails
Alcohol can be part of an anti-inflammatory diet if it's in moderation and with minimal extra calories and carbs, but frozen adult beverages like margaritas are loaded in calories and carbs from sugar. A glass of wine, beer or liquor with a low-sugar mixer is a much better bet!
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.