How Diet Impacts Inflammation Levels

7 Foods that Cause Inflammation to Avoid (Plus Healthy Swaps)


There’s no doubt that diet plays a central role in regulating inflammation. In fact, a 2017 survey found that nearly one-quarter of those with rheumatoid arthritis reported that their diet impacted symptom severity. Even for those without an autoimmune disorder, limiting a few of the top foods that cause inflammation can be incredibly beneficial to overall health.

What is inflammation exactly? Inflammation is considered a defense mechanism used by the body to protect against illness and infection.

Foods that cause inflammation - Dr. Axe

Although inflammation is a normal part of the immune process, more and more research shows that chronic inflammation can contribute to disease, trigger pain and increase the risk of serious issues, like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.

So what foods cause inflammation? In this article, we’ll take a look at a few of the foods that cause inflammation to avoid, plus some healthy swaps that you can make in your diet.

Top 7 Foods that Cause Inflammation

Several ingredients have been shown to trigger inflammation and negatively impact overall health. Here are a few of the top foods that cause inflammation.

1. Fried Foods

Fried foods like doughnuts, mozzarella sticks and potato chips are high in trans fats, a type of unhealthy fatty acid that has been linked to a long list of side effects. In addition to cranking up cholesterol levels and increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, trans fats may also trigger inflammation.

According to one study in the Journal of Nutrition, increased consumption of trans fatty acids was associated with higher levels of markers of inflammation, including C-reactive protein (CRP) and interleukin-6 (IL-6).

2. Processed Meat

Processed meat is any type of meat that has been smoked, cured, salted, dried or canned in order to enhance its flavor or extend its shelf life. Some of the most common examples include cold cuts, bacon, salami, sausage and beef jerky.

Not only was processed meat recently classified as carcinogenic by the World Health Organization, but it can contribute to inflammation as well. Studies show that eating more processed meat may be tied to higher levels of CRP, a marker that is used to measure inflammation in the body.

3. Alcohol

Although certain types of alcohol (like red wine) can actually be beneficial in moderation, excessive alcohol consumption is a major risk factor for inflammation. Studies show that drinking high amounts of alcohol can increase certain inflammatory markers, including CRP.

What’s more, alcohol intake can also ramp up the risk of leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which toxins and food particles leak from the digestive tract into the blood, causing widespread inflammation.

4. Refined Carbohydrates

Refined carbs like pasta, white bread, cookies and crackers are notorious as some of the top foods that cause inflammation of the joints. These foods undergo extensive processing, stripping them of beneficial nutrients, such as fiber.

Refined carbs also tend to have a higher glycemic index, which is used to measure how quickly foods increase blood sugar levels. Research shows that consuming foods with a high glycemic index may drive up inflammation, even in healthy adults.

On the other hand, studies show that swapping out refined grains for whole grains instead can decrease inflammation and protect against chronic disease.

5. Artificial Sweeteners

Often lurking in low-calorie foods and diet products, some research suggests that artificial sweeteners could cause inflammation. Although more research in humans is needed, studies indicate that artificial sweeteners may disrupt the health of the gut microbiome, which plays a key role in regulating inflammation.

One animal model also found that regular consumption of sucralose, also known as Splenda, could cause liver inflammation in mice.

6. Vegetable Oil

Heavily processed or refined vegetable oils are very high in omega-6 fatty acids. Although omega-6 fatty acids are an important component of a healthy diet, consuming a high ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids can trigger inflammation.

While experts generally recommend aiming for a ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids of around 4:1, most people consume a ratio closer to 15:1 instead. Therefore, limiting your consumption of refined vegetable oils while also adding more omega-3 fatty acids to your diet may help alleviate inflammation.

7. High-Fructose Corn Syrup

High-fructose corn syrup is a type of sweetener that is often found in processed foods, including soda, juice, candy and ice cream. Just like regular sugar, high-fructose corn syrup is at the top of the inflammatory foods chart and can have detrimental effects on nearly every aspect of health.

One study out of Boston found that women who consumed more sugar-sweetened beverages had a higher risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the joints. Another study published in Nutrition & Diabetes also reported that increased consumption of drinks containing high-fructose corn syrup was associated with a higher risk of arthritis in adults ages 20–30 as well.

Anti-Inflammatory Food Swaps

In addition to limiting your intake of foods that cause inflammation from the list above, incorporating a variety of foods that reduce inflammation into your diet can also be beneficial.

A healthy, well-rounded anti-inflammatory diet should comprise mostly nutrient-dense, whole foods, including fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds and legumes. Herbs, spices, healthy fats and protein foods are also included on the anti-inflammatory foods list as well.

Making a few simple swaps in your diet is an easy way to get started. Try trading processed meats, for example, with healthier protein sources, like fish, poultry, eggs or legumes.

You can also ditch the deep fat fryer and try baking your own vegetable chips or French fries instead. Or, try swapping refined carbs like white rice, pasta or bread for whole grain varieties to give your diet an easy upgrade.

Here are a few of the best anti-inflammatory foods to include in your meal plan:

  • Fruits: peaches, pineapple, mangoes, apples, berries, pears, oranges
  • Vegetables: broccoli, kale, spinach, zucchini, squash, sweet potatoes, spinach, watercress, tomatoes, garlic
  • Nuts and Seeds: pistachios, macadamia nuts, almonds, chia seeds, flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Legumes: black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, navy beans, peas
  • Whole Grains: quinoa, couscous, farro, millet, buckwheat, barley
  • Proteins: salmon, chicken, turkey, eggs, tempeh
  • Healthy Fats: coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, grass-fed butter, avocados
  • Herbs and Spices: turmeric, black pepper, rosemary, basil, oregano, cayenne pepper, dill

Looking for some simple ways to start adding these foods into your diet? Check out these anti-inflammatory diet recipes:


  • Research shows that chronic inflammation could contribute to serious conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
  • What foods cause inflammation? Some of the top inflammatory foods to avoid include fried foods, processed meats, alcohol, refined carbs, artificial sweeteners, vegetable oils and high-fructose corn syrup.
  • On the other hand, filling  your diet with nutrient-dense, whole foods can help alleviate inflammation and protect against disease.
  • Fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds are all excellent options that you can incorporate into a nutritious anti-inflammatory diet.

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