6 Inflammatory Foods to Avoid and What to Eat Instead

By: Molly Apel
June 10, 2020

6 Inflammatory Foods to Avoid and What to Eat Instead

  • What you eat can contribute to inflammation in your body. How do you know what to avoid?
  • Some of the most common foods and most delicious items on the menu can trigger an inflammatory response. Left unchecked, inflammation can lead to stress, fatigue and even chronic disease.
  • To help manage healthy levels of inflammation, cut back or eliminate the following foods that cause inflammation.  follow this list of foods to avoid and read on to learn what you can add to your diet that will create anti-inflammatory responses in your body.

What are inflammatory foods? We all know that some foods aren’t great for you. Unfortunately, that list includes delicious favorites like fried chicken and pizza. One of the reasons to avoid these foods is that they promote inflammation, which can be damaging to your long-term health.

Inflammation is called the “silent killer” because it leads to heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, weight gain and even early death. Keep reading to know which inflammatory foods to avoid and what anti-inflammatory foods to load up on.

Inflammatory foods: Cut back on these

1. Fried foods

Burgers, fries and milkshakes

Restaurants and packaged foods companies tend to use hydrogenated oils, margarine and shortening to get a perfectly crisp French fry or piece of fried chicken. These fats contain trans fatty acids and can cause inflammation of the endothelium, the thin inner lining of your heart and blood vessels.[1]

Your entire circulatory system is lined with these cells, which manage the exchange of nutrients and toxins between nearby tissue and the bloodstream. Inflammation of the endothelium is associated with a long list of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and insulin resistance.[2]

There’s clear science that backs this up. In a study of more than 100,000 women, those who ate a daily serving of fried chicken were 12% more likely to die from heart-related health issues. and those who ate fried fish or shellfish daily were 13% more likely to die from the same causes.[3]

Do this instead:

  • The most healthful choice is to avoid fried foods. You can still achieve delicious results with other cooking methods, like baking and using an Air Fryer.
  • If you’re going to eat fried foods, opt for quality, high-heat cooking oils like ghee or avocado oil. These fats have a better fatty acid profile than vegetable oil or canola oil.
  • This recipe for Crispy Paleo Tostones is a great example of how you can fry (or bake!) foods to enjoy occasionally at home.

Related: 4 Healthy Fats for High-Heat Cooking

2. Sodas

Overhead view of soda cans

Between the sugar and sugar substitutes, it’s not surprising that soda contributes to inflammation. In an article shared by Chester County Hospital, Stacey Kuhns, MD, a family medicine physician with Whiteland Medical Associates for Progressive Health, said your body recognizes artificial sweeteners as a toxin and stores it in the fat tissue where it generates an inflammatory response. “Your body attempts to dilute the chemical with water, causing added water weight in the body,” she said.

Even if you avoid artificial sweeteners, the amount of sugar in regular soda is enough to cause your body to feel puffy. A single 12 ounce can of cola contains almost 10 teaspoons of sugar. As your body processes glucose (a type of sugar), it will store at least 3 grams of water for every gram of glucose — hello, water-weight.[4]

And just like trans fats, fructose (another type of sugar) can cause inflammation of the endothelium. Here’s an article that goes deeper into how excess sugar puts your body through the wringer.

Do this instead:

  • Cut back on soda. If you do drink, avoid sodas made with artificial sweeteners.
  • If it’s the carbonation you crave, try sparkling water flavored with natural fruit essences like La Croix, Waterloo and Spindrift.
  • Whip up a flavorful drink at home with these recipes: Matcha Soda, Basil Lemonade or Keto Raspberry Thyme Gin Fizz (hold the gin to make it a mocktail)

3. Refined carbohydrates

Hand holding burger next to burger on plate

White bread, pizza dough, pasta and pastries are often made with white flour — wheat flour that’s been through a process that strips out the fiber and bran. This process takes much of the nutrients with it and leaves behind the carbohydrates.

Your body quickly breaks down refined carbohydrates into sugar, exposing you to the same inflammatory risks caused by sugar mentioned above. One study of healthy male subjects found that eating a high-carb meal caused a glycemic spike. The following insulin response led to a state of oxidative stress that produced inflammation.[5]

Your body’s metabolic processes are optimized to break down whole foods. That means when you eat a bunch of refined carbohydrates, you’re cheating your gut microbiota of the benefits it gets from breaking down complex carbohydrates — such as managing inflammation and loading up on fiber.

A study found that when your gut microbes go through the time-intensive process of separating cellulose from the simple carbohydrate, they actually consume some of the glucose. This keeps your body from producing the insulin spike it gets from consuming refined carbohydrates.[6]

Do this instead:

  • Avoid foods made with refined flour, such as white bread, pastries, packaged snacks and pasta.
  • If you eat grains, opt for whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat and oats.

Related: The Complete Bulletproof Guide to Gluten and Grains

4. Processed meats

Hot dogs and meats on plate

Processed meats are preserved with nitrates (NO3) and nitrites (NO2). These are simple organic compounds made of nitrogen paired with two or three oxygen atoms. In the process of digestion, nitrates typically lose an oxygen molecule (adding to your body’s oxidative stress) and become nitrites.

Nitrites are the same molecules found organically in vegetables like spinach, kale and cabbage. However, scientists have found that these compounds transform into dangerous nitrosamines when they are cooked in the presence of protein. These nitrosamines generate oxidative stress and inflammation.[7]

Even meats labeled as “uncured” or “no nitrites added” contain nitrites. These foods get their nitrites from celery, beets or another natural source that is used in the curing process.[8] Whether sourced from nature or from man-made sodium nitrite, the molecule is the same — and when cooked with meat, it’s just as inflammatory.

Kate Allen, executive director of science and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund, said in an article published by BBC that nitrites are just one reason processed meats pose a health risk. Smoked meats also include PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) and HCAs (heterocyclic amines), which both promote cancer.

Do this instead: 

  • Cut back on processed meats, and when you do eat them (like bacon), eat pasture-raised varieties from reliable sources.
  • When you cook your pasture-raised bacon, minimize oxidation by cooking it at lower temperatures — i.e. don’t burn it.

5. Margarine and shortening

Knife with margarine on dish

Butter is full of quality fats, which is why it’s a key player in Bulletproof Coffee. If you grew up thinking that margarine and shortening are healthier choices, the reality is that these foods are  made of trans fats — and they present the same inflammatory threats we covered earlier with fried foods.

Do this instead:

  • Cook with quality fats like grass-fed butter, grass-fed beef tallow or lard from pasture-raised pork.

Lard might be surprising, but in reality, it has nearly twice the monounsaturated fat (one of the healthy fats) as butter. It’s easy to cook with because it doesn’t smoke at high temperatures. It’s also the key ingredient in the perfect tortilla or these Crispy Keto Cauliflower Tots.

6. Alcohol

Two beers on bar

Ever felt a little puffy after a night out? Alcohol leads to inflammation in your body two ways.

  1. First, alcohol causes DNA damage to your body’s cells, which engages an inflammatory response as the cellular clean-up crew arrives.
  2. Second, the damage to the liver causes inflammation, abdominal swelling and bloating, as well as a host of other negative effects.

The bad news is that if you drink too regularly, your body remains in a heightened state of inflammation which can contribute to chronic disease. Read more about how alcohol affects your immune system.

Do this instead:

What to eat to manage inflammation

Bowl of vegetables on white dish towel

An easy way to fight inflammation is to eat in a way that actually supports a healthy inflammation response in your body. There are a few ways to do this:

  1. Follow an anti-inflammatory diet: The Bulletproof Diet Roadmap makes this easy with no measuring and no calorie counting — just an easy-to-follow path to a healthful, anti-inflammatory way to eat.
  2. Eat keto: A high-fat, low-carb ketogenic diet can help manage inflammation and burn through the water weight in your glycogen stores. To get started, read this Guide to the Keto Diet for Beginners.
  3. Eat foods that fight inflammation: Fill your diet with vegetables and fruits that contain omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds — think cold water fish, dark leafy greens, berries and spices like ginger, rosemary and turmeric. Learn more about surprising superfoods that fight inflammation.

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