Inflammation in the body can be a double-edged sword. Acute inflammation is typically a good thing. It helps the body immediately begin to heal from injury or fight infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is often a bad thing. It can last months or years, and—instead of protecting—it can eventually start damaging the body’s healthy cells, tissues, and organs.
Chronic inflammation is the cause of, or a significant contributor to, most major chronic diseases. These include, among others, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, allergic asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and even cancer and Alzheimer disease. Causes of chronic inflammation include persistent infection, environmental irritants like pollution or industrial chemicals, autoimmune or auto-inflammatory disorders, and inflammatory or biochemical inducers.
We can’t control some of these causes, but there are some we can. Specifically, “inflammatory or biochemical inducers” can come from the foods we eat. Take, for example, a doughnut—a triple threat in terms of inflammatory inducers. It’s made of refined white flour, it’s deep fried, and it’s coated in sugar—three dietary factors that can lead to systemic inflammation, as you’ll see below.
Will one doughnut kill you? Probably not. But Americans eat a lot of doughnuts (each of us eats an average of 31 doughnuts per year), as well as a lot of other inflammation-causing foods. To avoid these inflammatory inducers—and by extension, to lower your risk of chronic inflammatory disease—cut out or cut back your consumption of these foods:
Among adults in industrialized nations, sugar accounts for about 14% to 25% of all calories consumed, according to one review.
Is it any surprise? Added sugar seems to be in everything these days—cereal bars, protein shakes, coffee drinks, sports drinks, even pasta sauce. And, of course, there’s loads of sugar—and its nasty nephew, high-fructose corn syrup!—in sodas, pastries, candy bars, and snacks.
These sugary treats may make life seem sweet, but they can be very bad for your body—and not just in terms of cavities and extra weight. A high-sugar diet is associated with an increase in the release of free radicals and proinflammatory cytokines, which can induce inflammation and vascular damage.
High-fructose corn syrup in sodas and soft drinks has been linked with metabolic disorders. Fructose triggers the production of uric acid, which induces insulin resistance and low-grade inflammation.
Too much sugar in your life? Consider eating more foods that are naturally sweet, such as fruits instead of foods with added refined sugar, like candy, to indulge your sweet-tooth craving.
Red and processed meats
Although “processed meat” doesn’t sound very appetizing, savory sausages, juicy ham, and sizzling bacon can’t be beat for those Americans with the taste for meat. Fatty steaks, fast-food burgers, beef jerky, and hot dogs all fall under this flavorful category.
Although these meats may be savory to your tongue, they’re decidedly unsavory to your health. Eating red and processed meat is associated with increased risks of heart disease, diabetes, stomach cancer, and, especially, colorectal cancer.
Plus, processed meat contains high amounts of advanced glycation end products. These toxic compounds can be formed by grilling or roasting meats at high temperatures, and they’re known to cause inflammation.
Healthier alternatives to red and processed meats include chicken, fish, vegetables, or nuts.
Carbohydrates have been demonized in recent years—and rightly so, in many cases. Foods like white bread, white rice, pasta, and bagels all come from carbs that have been refined (ie, had the nutrient- and fiber-rich bran and germ removed).
So-called “empty carbs” are linked to increased production of inflammatory markers, like C-reactive protein and interleukin (IL)-6. High-carb diets are also linked to changes in the immune system that ultimately cause systemic chronic inflammation.
Refined carbs also increase inflammation through another process. Foods made of refined carbs (we’re looking at you, doughnuts!) have a higher glycemic index than others. Eating more food with higher glycemic index levels can cause increased oxidative stress, which activates inflammatory reactions. Eating more high glycemic index foods has also been linked to increased mortality from inflammatory diseases.
Then again, not all carbohydrates are bad. Eating a diet that includes high-fiber, whole-grain carbs can lower systemic inflammation and reduce weight compared with a refined-carb diet.
Some fried foods are high in artificial trans fats, also known as partially hydrogenated oils. These fats are so bad for you that the FDA determined in 2015 that partially hydrogenated oils would no longer be considered “Generally Recognized as Safe.” In 2018, the WHO called for the worldwide elimination of trans fats from the global food supply.
The food industry has heeded the call and aims to phase out artificial trans fats by 2023. McDonald’s and most other major fast-food chains have already stopped using trans fats in their French fries and other menu items. Bear in mind that natural trans fats—such as those found in dairy products and meat—aren’t the malefactors that artificial, industrially-made trans fats are.
But, artificial trans fats are still out there. In addition to some fried foods, trans fats can be found in certain margarines and vegetable shortenings, as well as packaged cakes and cookies. “Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” listed in the ingredients on the label means a product includes trans fats. Besides causing coronary heart disease, artificial trans fats are linked to the production of high levels of inflammatory markers, including C-reactive protein, IL-6, and tumor necrosis factor-alpha.
Replace partially hydrogenated oils with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated oils, like sunflower or canola oil.
Researchers are learning that alcohol, especially when consumed frequently and in greater amounts, induces a process initiated in the gut that promotes inflammation throughout the body.
“This alcohol-induced intestinal inflammation may be at the root of multiple organ dysfunctions and chronic disorders associated with alcohol consumption, including chronic liver disease, neurological disease, [gastrointestinal] cancers, and inflammatory bowel syndrome,” researchers wrote in a review published in Alcohol Research: Current Reviews.
Is there a healthy, inflammation-fighting alcoholic drink available? Some evidence shows that red wine, imbibed in moderation, may reduce inflammation and help the brain clear toxins. However, if you want to take alcohol off the table altogether, you could drink fruit juice or non-alcoholic “mocktails.” For stress relief, alcohol can be replaced by light exercise, meditation, deep-breathing exercises, yoga, or sex.
Of course, once in a while, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional beer, hot dog, French fries, or Cracker Jack—that is, if baseball season ever starts this year.