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

Brittany Risher
July 26, 2021
Photo Credit: Lucas Ottone

The more we learn about the connection between chronic inflammation and various diseases, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, the more anything being “inflammatory” seems inherently terrible. But the reality is that inflammation itself isn’t necessarily bad; in fact, it’s our body’s first line of defense against infections and injuries. What is bad is when your body is constantly on high alert — due to stress, insufficient sleep, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption, and eating inflammatory foods. This state of chronic inflammation is what’s really concerning.  

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

With that in mind, here are the top four inflammatory foods to minimize in your diet (or avoid altogether) and some ideas of what you can healthily substitute 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 that too much added sugar is linked to inflammation and may have negative health impacts.” And it appears that this also 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 a bowl of Greek yogurt with some berries, banana nice cream, DIY tropical popsicles, or a square of dark chocolate. 

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, 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 can 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.

So what should you eat instead? When possible, try to focus on whole grains — like wild rice, oats, quinoa, barley, and black rice — rather than refined grains, like breads, cereals, and crackers. “This 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,” Romano says. Indeed, studies link the consumption of whole grains with decreased systemic inflammation.

3. Certain Meats

Consuming processed meats like 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 everyone — a lot of people’s bodies do really well with some grass-fed beef and lamb, for instance — it’s a good idea to consider the kinds of meats you’re eating. “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.”

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 has been shown to reduce the formation of AGEs when you cook.

4. Alcohol

“Alcohol is a toxin, so it certainly does more harm than good, especially at high levels,” Hultin says. Arguably the most delicious and sociable poison of all time — and one that has heart-protective effects when consumed in small quantities — alcohol’s ultimately still a poison at its core. Drinking causes inflammation by throwing off the balance of bacteria in the gut and making the gut barrier more permeable, among other problems. So ess is definitely better, and when you’re drinking, it’s a good idea to try a natural wine or low-alcohol option (like this better-for-you-margarita).

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