Trying to Reduce Inflammation? 4 Foods to Avoid (and What to Eat Instead)

Brittany Risher
July 26, 2021
sugar cravings
Photo Credit: Lucas Ottone

When you hear the word inflammation, what do you think? The more we learn about the connection between chronic inflammation and various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the more it seems like a bad word. The reality is, inflammation is our body’s first line of defense against infections and injuries. What’s “bad” is when your body is constantly on high alert — due to stress, insufficient sleep, obesity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption, and even certain inflammatory foods.

A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology found that people who ate the most pro-inflammatory foods had a 46 percent higher risk of heart disease and 28 percent higher risk of stroke compared to those whose diets were highest in anti-inflammatory foods.

With that in mind, here are four inflammatory foods to minimize — or avoid altogether — and what to eat instead.

1. Added Sugar

Alicia Romano, RD, a specialized clinical dietitian at Tufts Medical Center and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics national media spokesperson, says it’s important to distinguish between sugar and added sugar. “Sugar on its own does not cause inflammation,” she says. “What the research shows is too much added sugar is linked to inflammation and may have negative health impacts.” And it appears that this happens with any added sweeteners. That means white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, honey, agave, maple syrup, corn syrup — you name it.

The takeaway? Be mindful of your added sugar consumption. Use these tips to reduce your sugar intake. And if you’re craving something sweet, consider healthier choices like fruit, dark chocolate, or even a roasted sweet potato.

2. Refined Carbs

Like sugar, processed carbs can become an issue when you eat a lot of them, although it’s unclear exactly why, says Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist, Ginger Hultin MS RDN, owner of ChampagneNutrition® and author of Anti-Inflammatory Diet Meal Prep. One theory is that simple carbohydrates trigger inflammation and other changes in the gut microbiome. Another theory suggests that refined carbs tend to be high-glycemic foods, which spike blood sugar levels and cause an inflammatory response. Lastly, processed carbs often go together with added sugars and processed and saturated fats, which also cause inflammation, Hultin says.

What what should you eat instead? When possible, make half of your grains whole grains, Romano recommends. “Doing so has an anti-inflammatory effect due to the polyphenols in whole grains as well as the beneficial fibers that may elicit an effect down to the level of the microbiome,” she explains. Indeed, studies link the consumption of whole grains with decreased systemic inflammation.

rib-eye steak

Photo Credit: Mary Lagier

3. Certain Meats

Consuming red meat and processed meats such as bacon, sausage, and deli meats appears to increase inflammation. Scientists believe that advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which are naturally found in some meats and also form when meat is grilled, broiled, roasted, seared, or fried, play a role in this process.

While avoiding meat isn’t the answer for every situation, “I definitely suggest a plant-forward diet when targeting inflammation,” Hultin says. “Aim to increase your protein intake through beans, lentils, nuts, seeds, whole grains, and soy foods like tofu, tempeh, and edamame. That’s what shows up in the research as most anti-inflammatory.”

Aside from plants, don’t forget fatty fish, which are high in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. And when you want to grill, marinate your meat first. Using lemon juice or vinegar, herbs, and spices appears to reduce the formation of AGEs when you cook.

4. Alcohol

“Alcohol is a toxin to the body and so it certainly does more harm than good, especially at high levels,” Hultin says. It causes inflammation by throwing off the balance of bacteria in the gut and making the gut barrier more permeable, among other problems.

Less is definitely better (and none is even better). Try a low-alcohol option (like this better-for-you-margarita) or one of these alcohol-free spirits.


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