Inflammation gets a bad rap, but it only partially deserves it. If you catch a cold or stub your toe, you want the invading pathogen or wound to trigger an inflammatory response, because that’s what starts the healing process. Exercise also causes temporary inflammation; it helps you build muscle mass.
The catch is when inflammation doesn’t go away, “it becomes a simmering flame,” says New York-based integrative dietitian Robin Foroutan, RDN. Left unchecked, it can cause fatigue, difficulty sleeping, damage healthy tissue, and can increase the risk of a number of diseases, including asthma, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and cancer.
To get your levels down, look at your diet. “Chronic inflammation stems in part from chronic consumption of excessive amounts of certain foods,” says Ginger Hultin, RDN, a Seattle-based registered dietitian nutritionist at ChampagneNutrition. You don’t have to eat perfectly—”It’s not like you have one candy bar and you get inflamed,” he says—but the overall pattern and quality of your diet is very important. If you’re eating too many of these inflammatory foods, consider this as your incentive to cut back.
1. Charcoal grilled meat
Whether you’re grilling or grilling, char marks and burnt edges are clues that your food contains heterocyclic amines (HCAs), compounds that cause fats and proteins to oxidize, causing oxidative stress and cell damage. Cooking any animal protein at high temperatures can form HCAs, but red meat is likely the worst offender; The International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies it as “possibly carcinogenic to humans.”
Meat cooked over an open flame also often contains polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are formed when fats and liquids drip down and create smoke that sticks to the surface of your food. PAHs are also found in cigarette smoke and car exhaust. (Still hungry?)
If you like the taste of charcoal grilled beef, you can prevent some spoilage by marinating it in a mixture of lemon juice and spices. Black pepper, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, sage and marjoram all contain beneficial antioxidants, which ward off inflammation.
2. Processed meat products
Hold on to the salami, pass on the bacon, and think twice before reaching for a hot dog. Processed meats are inflammatory for several reasons, starting with their high saturated fat content. Saturated fat makes the fatty tissue in your body more inflamed. These foods also contain high levels of sodium nitrite, a compound that can be converted into nitrosamines and increases the risk of stomach cancer. Plus, they’re a major source of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), especially when cooked over high heat (think bacon sizzling in a skillet). AGEs cause oxidative stress and inflammation, and can accelerate age-related diseases such as macular degeneration and Alzheimer’s.
Still not sure? A large 2020 study, published in the International Journal of Epidemiology, concluded that high intake of red and processed meat is strongly associated with a higher risk of colorectal cancer.
A glass of red wine isn’t a bad thing; contains resveratrol, a healthy plant compound (polyphenol) that has antioxidant properties. Other types of alcohol, even liquor, can act as anti-inflammatories—at least if you drink them in small amounts. But alcohol is still a poison, and when consumed in excess it causes inflammation, says Hultin. Studies have shown that alcohol induces inflammation in the gut through several pathways and this inflammation, in turn, may partly explain why excessive alcohol use is so closely linked to cancer, liver disease, and nerve damage.
In theory, moderation is best: Moderate drinkers tend to experience less inflammation than heavy drinkers and those who don’t drink at all. But some studies have concluded that abstinence is the healthiest choice overall, so don’t start drinking for better health. If you choose to drink, limit your intake to 2 drinks a day or less if you are a man or 1 drink a day or less if you are a woman.
4. Fried food
Trans fats are mostly off-limits at this point, but that doesn’t mean you can safely order fries. Every time you fry food—and especially when you use the same oil over and over again, as most restaurants do—you create inflammatory molecules, says Foroutan.
You also have to be careful when stir-frying food at home. Cooking with extra virgin olive oil is great, but it has a relatively low smoke point, and “once you see that smoking, any health benefits are nullified and it becomes inflammatory,” he says. Keep the temperature a little lower, or choose avocado oil, which can withstand a little more heat.
5. Sweet food and drink
Sugar isn’t necessarily inflammatory, but high consumption of added sugar can certainly increase inflammation, says Hultin. Studies have shown that people who get 20% of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages have increased levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of inflammation. Added sugar is also high in calories but low in nutrients, meaning consuming too much of it makes it easy to become overweight — and obesity is linked to chronic inflammation.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting daily added sugar intake to the equivalent of 9 teaspoons per day for men or 6 teaspoons for women. (Warning: One can of soda may contain more than 10 teaspoons.)
6. Ultra-processed food
If it is packaged in a box or bag with a long list of ingredients, inflammation is likely. Processed foods can trigger chronic inflammation by changing the composition of the bacteria that live in your gut.
Also concerning: Packaged foods often contain chemicals and other ingredients that cause inflammation, says Foroutan. For example, many processed salty snacks are made with cottonseed oil, and because cottonseed is not a food, cottonseed can be treated with toxic pesticides that are not normally permitted for use on produce. Cottonseed oil is also refined at very high temperatures, which further creates inflammatory products, he says.
7. Very refined carbohydrates
Cakes, crackers, white bread, and other refined carbohydrate products quickly spike your blood sugar, which triggers an inflammatory response as your body tries to lower blood glucose levels to normal.
Instead of avoiding carbs altogether, focus on whole grains, like quinoa and brown rice, which take longer to digest and won’t spike your blood sugar.
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