Eat and drink less of these things to reduce your risk of chronic disease.
Credit: Getty / Jordan Siemens

Inflammation can be a good thing. Acute inflammation is a sign that the body is protecting from an invader or healing a wound (like that bump on your knee after you knock it on the coffee table).

Chronic inflammation, however, occurs inside the body and over time can lead to increased risk for everything from cancer and cardiovascular disease to arthritis and depression.

Here at EatingWell, we're big fans of anti-inflammatory eating plans loaded with fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds, fatty fish, fresh herbs and spices. Not only are all of those delicious, but they deliver the added bonus of taming chronic inflammation. (BTW, here are 9 sneaky signs you could have inflammation).

We're learning more about the biggest culprits on the flip side, thanks to a recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. These four categories have been pegged as the most inflammatory items that can ramp up risk for heart disease and stroke:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat (such as bacon or deli meat)
  • Refined grains (think: candy or white bread)
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages

So how, exactly, do inflammatory foods impact circulation within the heart and brain? Specific inflammatory biomarkers (including interleukins, chemokines and adhesion molecules) have been linked to atherosclerosis, or plaque buildup in the arteries that can narrow them and impede regular flow. Long-term low levels of chronic inflammation within the body can promote this buildup, report Johns Hopkins medical pros. Over time, inflammation can also lead these plaques to dislodge and trigger blood clots that prompt a heart attack or stroke.

For this study, researchers dug into dietary surveys of more than 210,000 people starting in 1986 and including follow-ups every four years for 32 years total.

Jun Li, M.D., Ph.D., lead author of the study and research scientist in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health said in a press release about the findings: "Using an empirically-developed, food-based dietary index to evaluate levels of inflammation associated with dietary intake, we found that dietary patterns with higher inflammatory potential were associated with an increased rate of cardiovascular disease. Our study is among the first to link a food-based dietary inflammatory index with long-term risk of cardiovascular disease."

Controlling for body mass index, family history of heart disease, activity level and the use of multivitamins, the researchers discovered that a pro-inflammatory meal diet was associated with a 46% higher risk of heart disease and 28% higher risk of stroke, compared to those who ate a more anti-inflammatory diet. While those four food and drink categories were the biggest culprits, the scientists also recommend limiting fried foods and organ meats. (Conversely, they promote leaning into antioxidant-rich and high-fiber foods like green leafy vegetables, yellow vegetables, whole grains, tea, coffee and wine.)

"A better knowledge of health protection provided by different foods and dietary patterns, mainly their anti-inflammatory properties, should provide the basis for designing even healthier dietary patterns to protect against heart disease," said Ramon Estruch, M.D., Ph.D., senior consultant in the department of internal medicine at Hospital Clinic in Barcelona, Spain in the press release.

It's not that you can never have a donut or steak again. But focusing on choosing more anti-inflammatory foods, like vegetables and whole grains, can help keep your body and your heart healthy. Plus, a Mediterranean diet is good for your heart and for inflammation. To help keep your heart healthy today: follow our list of the best and worst things to eat for your heart.