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Inflammatory Foods: 5 Causes of Dietary Inflammation

By Heidi Hingtgen Updated on — Medically Reviewed and Certified by Dr. Robert Kiltz

Table of Contents

Eating inflammatory foods that are high in carbohydrates, added sugars, industrial fats, and plant-toxins can lead to chronic inflammation and disease. 

If you’re suffering from chronic inflammation or seeking to reduce your risks for developing it, your diet is a good place to start.

Read on to learn about the main causes of inflammation in your diet and the changes you can make to reduce inflammation.

What Is Inflammation?

Inflammation is your body’s way of protecting itself from infection and injury. When your body’s immune response is functioning properly, inflammation is temporary.

Inflammation turns on when you need it, and off again once you are healed. This process evolved for our survival in the absence of modern medication such as antibiotics.

Your immune system releases inflammatory cells in response to stressors such as:

  • Infection
  • Injury
  • Toxins

This inflammatory response leads to swelling, redness, and pain–signs that your body is attempting to heal itself. In acute inflammation, you may experience these symptoms for a few days while your body recovers. 

But when inflammation doesn’t turn off, it simmers at a chronic level, damaging healthy cells instead of healing damaged cells.  Over time, chronic inflammation can increase your risk of inflammatory diseases. 

Acute vs. Chronic inflammation

Chronic Inflammation is a Global Epidemic

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) diseases related to chronic inflammation are the most significant cause of death in the world. Experts forecast that this disease will increase persistently for the next 30 years, and in large part due to our modern diets.  

In 2014, the Rand Corporation estimated that 60% of Americans had at least one chronic inflammatory condition, 42% had more than 1, and 12% of adults had 5 or more chronic inflammatory conditions. 2

Globally, 3 out of 5 people die from chronic inflammatory diseases including stroke, respiratory diseases, heart disorders, cancer, obesity, and diabetes.

Inflammatory Foods can lead to Disease

Chronic inflammation from the foods we eat can contribute to the development of diseases such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Asthma
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Arthritis
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Cancer
  • Infertility
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5 Inflammatory Foods in your Diet

Chronic inflammation can be caused by several factors including untreated injuries and infections, autoimmune disorders, and long-term exposure to industrial chemicals. But perhaps the most prevalent, overlooked, and easily treatable cause of chronic inflammation are the inflammatory foods in your diet. 

The Standard American Diet exposes people to high levels of known inflammatory compounds, including: 

  • Plant toxins
  • Vegetable and seed oils
  • Added sugars
  • Excessive alcohol 

1: Inflammatory Plant Toxins and Antinutrients

Plant toxins and antinutrients are chemicals that naturally occur in plants. Over time, plants evolved toxins and antinutrients to defend themselves from predators such as fungi, insects, and animals–including humans.

Plant toxins and antinutrients are associated with many inflammation-related food sensitivities, digestive complaints, and autoimmune diseases.

Plant Toxins

Plant toxins are highly potent chemicals that can trigger powerful inflammatory responses. For example, ricin is a plant toxin that naturally occurs in the seeds of the castor bean or castor oil plant. A few grains of ricin powder form can kill an adult human.

Though ricin is an extreme example, all plants produce dozens of toxins that protect them from injury and predation. 

Naturally occuring plant toxins make up 99.99% of all pesticides. And we eat roughly 5,000-10,000 natural pesticides every day.

Common plant toxins include: 

  • Glycoalkaloids: These neurotoxins and enzyme inhibitors are present in Potatoes. The highest glycoalkaloid levels are concentrated in the sprouts, peel, and area around the “eyes.” 
  • Sulforaphane: Most of the sulforaphane you eat gets absorbed into your bloodstream where it damages intracellular structures like mitochondria and enzymes. 
  • Salicylates: Sensitivity to salicylates presents as an allergic reaction that can include difficulty breathing, hives, swelling, and GI symptoms.
  • Cyanogenic Glycosides: These phytotoxins can be found in at least 2,000 species of plants. Symptoms of acute cyanide intoxication can include: rapid respiration, drop in blood pressure, dizziness, headache, stomach pains, vomiting, diarrhea, mental confusion, twitching, and convulsions followed by terminal coma. 

Plant Antinutrients

Plant antinutrients prevent your body from absorbing essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This can result in nutritional deficiencies if you aren’t consuming the nutrients you need. 

Common antinutrients in your diet include:

  • Glucosinolates. Common in cruciferous vegetables. Reduces the absorption of iodine–an essential mineral with anti-inflammatory properties.
  • Lectins. This antinutrient is in legumes and whole grains and reduces the absorption of calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc. Gluten is a notorious lectin that can lead to damaging inflammation of the intestinal tracts and other parts of the body.
  • Oxalates. Occurs in green leafy vegetables and tea. High oxalate consumption is associated with various markers of inflammation.
  • Phytates. This antinutrient is in whole grains, seeds, legumes, and some nuts and reduces the absorption of iron, zinc, magnesium, and calcium.
  • Saponins. This antinutrient occurs in legumes and whole grains and prevents normal nutrient absorption. They can contribute to leaky gut. After crossing into the bloodstream they can damage red blood cells.
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2: Inflammatory Vegetable and Seed Oils

Vegetable oils are extracted from the seeds of plants. Vegetable and seed oils are often coined “heart-healthy.” But they are highly processed industrial oils and recent research suggests can imbalance our ratio of essential fats, cause inflammation.

Common vegetable and seed oils include:

  • Corn oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Sunflower oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Canola oil

Frying oil

When fried, vegetable and seed oils undergo chemical reactions that produce toxic compounds. Unfortunately, vegetable oils have been linked to inflammatory diseases such as:

  • Inflammatory bowel disease
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Ulcerative colitis
  • Colon cancer

Omega-6 and Omega-3 Imbalance

Omega-6 is an essential nutrient that you need to consume because your body can’t produce it on its own. When consumed in moderation, omega-6 fatty acids are good for you. But consuming excessive omega-6 can cause your body to produce an inflammatory response.

Over the last century, as our diets changed to include more processed vegetable oils, ratios of omega-6 to omega-3’s have shifted dramatically. Currently, the ratio may be as high as 20:1.

Research links an overabundance of omega-6 fatty acids to a long list of diseases associated with chronic inflammation, including heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other metabolic diseases , pregnancy issues and mood disorders such as depression and bipolar disorder.

One of the ways to combat inflammation from omega-6 fatty acids is to consume omega-3 fatty acids. This is because omega-3s have anti-inflammatory properties. Alternatively, you can prevent inflammation by reducing your consumption of inflammatory foods like vegetable and seed oils, and replacing them with whole, pasture-raised animal foods.

3: Carbohydrates and Added Sugars

Eating foods high in carbohydrates and added sugars increases inflammation in the body. Refined carbs are sugars and grains that have been stripped of fiber.

Refined carbs have a high glycemic index, which means that they cause your blood sugar levels to spike. High blood sugar levels trigger an inflammatory response. Research suggests that older adults who eat high glycemic foods are 2.9 times more likely to die of an inflammatory disease than older adults who eat low glycemic foods.

Common sources of refined carbs that increase inflammation in your diet include:

  • White bread
  • Pizza
  • Pasta
  • White flour
  • Chips
  • Crackers
  • Most processed foods

high glycemic food

4: Trans Fats

Trans fats are a form of unsaturated fat. Small traces of trans fats occur naturally in animal products like meat and dairy, but most dietary trans fats are man-made.

Artificial trans fats are likely the most unhealthy fats you can eat. Manufacturers produce trans fats by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil. That’s why another term for trans fats is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Hydrogenation causes oil to solidify at room temperature, which prolongs its shelf life. 

Many processed foods contain artificial trans fats. You can usually find trans fats in the following food products:

  • Processed meats
  • Baked goods
  • Shortening
  • Microwave popcorn
  • Frozen pizzas
  • Fried foods
  • Margarine
  • Refrigerated dough

Artificial trans fats raise your levels of LDL or low-density lipoprotein. This is the bad form of cholesterol that accumulates in your arteries. Over time, high LDL cholesterol levels cause your arteries to become hard and narrow.

Trans fats also reduce your levels of HDL or high-density lipoprotein.  This is the good form of cholesterol that transports excess cholesterol to your liver. With low levels of HDL cholesterol, your body can’t prevent the buildup of plaque in your arteries.

Unlike the naturally occurring trans fats found in dairy and meat, artificial trans fats cause inflammation and increase your risk of heart disease.

5: Alcohol

Alcohol is another common inflammatory food in the Standard American Diet. After you ingest alcohol, your liver metabolizes it into smaller molecules. This process results in the production of toxins and free radicals that can cause inflammation and cellular damage.

Alcohol can lead to harmful effects if over-consumed. Heavy drinking can increase your risk of the following diseases:

  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Alcoholic cirrhosis
  • Liver failure
  • Cancer
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke

Heavy drinking includes:

  • 4 or more drinks per day for women
  • 8 or more drinks per week for women
  • 5 or more drinks per day for men
  • 15 or more drinks per week for men

How to Reduce Inflammatory Foods: High-Fat Low-Carb Diets

High-fat, low-carbohydrate ketogenic diets may help reduce inflammation by removing unhealthy foods and adding in healthy foods. A well-formulated keto diet reduces refined and total carb intake and eliminates artificial trans fats along with industrialized seed oils. 

Keto also encourages the consumption of healthy, natural fats that you get from fresh meats and seafood. 

Anti-inflammatory foods that you can eat in abundance on a keto diet include:

  • Eggs
  • Olive oil
  • Fish
  • Butter
  • Organ meats
  • Avocados

The health benefits of a ketogenic diet include lower blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to less glycation and inflammation, and a reduction in the likelihood of developing or worsening inflammation related diseases including heart disease, cancer or a metabolic disease such as diabetes.

Eating a low glycemic diet, high in healthy fats has the added benefit of making you feel fuller longer, which decreases cravings for processed foods, and helps you maintain a healthy weight.

Inflammation in Your Diet: The Takeaway

Inflammation is a natural process that your body uses to heal injuries and fight infections. When the body is functioning properly, inflammation is temporary. 

But when inflammation persists it can lead to many chronic diseases and is, in fact, the leading cause of death in the world. 

For most Americans and people eating Western Diets, the foods we eat the most, including high-carbohydrate, plant-based, and processed foods are known causes of chronic inflammation. 

Making healthy dietary changes is a powerful first step to reducing inflammation in the body and protecting yourself against deadly and debilitating diseases. 

Adopting a high-fat low-carb diet is a powerful approach to reducing inflammation. Keto cuts out carbs and processed fats while replacing them with healthy fats and nutrient-rich foods that can boost your immune system and rebalance your body’s natural inflammatory response. 

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