Dr Charlotte Hay
The Worst Foods for Inflammation
Inflammation. It’s become a bit of a buzzword these days.
Chances are you’ve probably heard how inflammation can affect our health in numerous ways; it’s now widely acknowledged that inflammation may be the root cause of most major chronic illnesses, including heart disease, dementia, and cancer.
So what is inflammation and how do we avoid it?
The first thing to understand is that not all inflammation is bad. Your body naturally initiates inflammation when you injure yourself – the area becomes red and inflamed as your body tries to control the damage. This is good, and we need this kind of acute response. The problem arises with long-term chronic inflammation, which can lead to the major lifestyle diseases already mentioned, as well as pain, gut issues, skin issues like eczema and acne, weight gain, and so much more.
Inflammation can come from so many sources, including our environment (e.g. toxins), but two of the biggest causes of inflammation in our current (Western) lifestyles are: 1) stress, and 2) the food we’re eating.
So what can we do to reduce inflammation?
I believe in starting with food first, as a healthy diet already goes such a long way to addressing most chronic health problems (including inflammation). This means looking at reducing, or cutting out entirely, the most pro-inflammatory foods from our diet. These are:
Probably the most inflammatory food out there, I believe if we cut out, or drastically reduced, our sugar intake we would see a huge improvement in our overall health and wellbeing. Sugar is not only linked to Type 2 Diabetes, but it also feeds (bad) bacteria, yeast, and cancer cells, is terrible for our brain health, and leads to obesity (it is now becoming more and more acknowledged that fat doesn’t make you fat, sugar makes you fat), which is a risk factor for many other diseases and health concerns. By sugar I mean refined sugar and refined carbs, not fruit or complex carbs, which have many other health benefits (check out this article for more info on sugar and healthier alternatives). Try cutting it out for a month and see how your health improves!
Dairy is in my top 3 most inflammatory foods for a number of reasons, not least because many people are lactose intolerant without realising it. But, even if you are not intolerant, there are numerous other problems with it. Dairy, like all animal products, is acidic in the body, causing the body to leech calcium from the bones in order to neutralise the acid. Besides being problematic for bone health, drinking dairy milk on a daily basis increases your risk of breast cancer, and is connected to excess mucous (and related health problems). There also appears to be a strong link between dairy consumption and skin issues such as acne and eczema. This may be partly due to the natural hormones inherent in milk (since dairy milk was created for a baby cow, to help it grow big), which can also contribute to weight gain in humans. Plus, dairy products tend to be quite high in sugar, and even natural unsweetened dairy creates insulin resistance, which is connected to diabetes, weight gain, acne, and many other health concerns.
While people who suffer from coeliac disease must completely avoid gluten permanently, there is a growing awareness of a less severe issue with gluten, known as gluten intolerance, which more and more people these days seem to suffer from (approx. 30-40% of the population). You might suspect you are gluten intolerant if you experience a lot of bloating or digestive issues after you eat gluten, if you suffer from skin issues, including acne and eczema, have unexplained weight gain or problems losing weight, or have a lot of allergies. There are many hypotheses as to why gluten intolerance has skyrocketed over the past 50 or so years, such as the fact that bread nowadays has far more gluten in it than traditional breads because modern consumers prefer a ‘fluffier’ texture, the genetic modification of wheat, etc. There are also many experts who argue that everyone is gluten 'intolerant' (even people who never have any symptoms) in that gluten causes leaky gut – or intestinal permeability – in all of us, which can can then lead to a host of other problems including autoimmune disease.
Given that the foods highest in gluten tend to be processed foods and refined carbs (muffins, donuts, pasta, etc.) I‘ve found that trying to reduce your gluten intake – provided you don’t just sub gluten products for gluten-free versions (which are also highly processed) – forces you to be more creative with your diet and to swap the gluten for veggies or more whole foods.
As a common allergen, especially for children, eggs can be inflammatory for many people (you might not be aware that you are allergic or intolerant until you try cutting them out). But this may also be because of the quality of the eggs and where they come from. For example, eggs from caged hens who are fed a diet of GM corn (or other foods which are not natural for them), who never see sunlight and suffer from stress and anxiety their entire short lives, and who are given antibiotics and other medications to deal with the illnesses that arise from their unhygienic living conditions, will be far different from an egg from a backyard hen who has acres to roam, eats a varied and organic diet (foraging some food naturally), and is allowed to live out her full life. If you can get eggs from the latter source (maybe rescuing your own hens if you have space, or getting eggs from a neighbour who has backyard hens and where you know the living conditions) then, as long as you are not allergic or intolerant (which you can check by doing an elimination diet), they may not be problematic for you, although I would still suggest limiting your intake due to other health issues, such as that eggs have been linked to eczema and psoriasis, and that egg consumption appears to increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes and certain cancers, and to shorten lifespan.
Apart from the fact that many people are allergic to soy, for those of us who aren't allergic, I believe the main issue that comes up around soy is the quality (and source). In many parts of the world, such as the US, soy is often genetically modified, and/or heavily processed (think of ‘soy protein isolate’). This is vastly different to organic, unprocessed tofu or tempeh, for example. As long as you are not allergic or intolerant, I would encourage you to swap to organic-only, less processed forms of soy such as miso, tempeh, tofu and tamari.
Similar to soy, much of the problem with corn derives from the fact that a lot of corn grown in the US (and other places) is genetically modified, as well as often being highly processed (into high fructose corn syrup, for example). Like soy, I don’t think that organic, unprocessed corn, as eaten in many parts of the world, is unhealthy, so long as you are not actually allergic to it, and don't eat it excessively.
Besides being quite acidic in the body, one of the problems with peanuts is that they are often contaminated with aflatoxin mould. This may be more of an issue in certain parts of the world (and depends on each country’s regulations) but certainly worth thinking about if you are sensitive to mould or have suffered from mould-toxicity in the past.
You might have noticed that the last 7 of these are also the common allergens (foods people are commonly allergic to). In this way they might cause inflammation – if you are allergic to them without realising, or even slightly intolerant (which may cause mild symptoms that build up over time). For this reason you might feel a lot better cutting them out of your diet, or doing an elimination diet to see which of these in particular is an issue for you.
On top of these 8 I would also add:
9. Vegetable oils
Vegetable oil is so prevalent in our Western diet because it is one of the main ingredients in processed food, as well as being commonly used for cooking. The problem with vegetable oil is that it is very high in omega-6, which is inflammatory (it encourages the production of ‘bad’ prostaglandins, associated with pain, including menstrual cramps). In the past, our ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 was much smaller, almost 3:1 (omega-6: omega-3), whereas nowadays it is thought to be around 18:1 (largely due to our high intake of vegetable oil and processed foods). As well as cutting out processed foods and margarines, I would encourage you to avoid cooking with vegetable oil; instead using cold-pressed, organic olive oil for salad dressings and light cooking, and coconut oil or avocado oil for high temperature cooking.
10. Processed foods
As well as the issue with vegetable oil, mentioned above, processed food also tends to be high in fat and sugar (which is also inflammatory), as well as preservatives, artificial flavours and artificial colours, which have been linked to behaviour problems in children. If there is one thing that nutritionists can agree on (and there’s not much!) it’s that processed food is the number one problem with modern day diets, and that simply cutting out processed food, learning to cook, and eating more whole foods in their natural form (or processed yourself) would have a profound impact on your health and the health of our communities.
11. Artificial sweeteners
Besides the more well-known problem with artificial sweeteners – that your body expects calories given how sweet they are, which can then encourage you to eat more – it is becoming more widely acknowledged that artificial sweeteners can cause gut dysbiosis (in other words, throwing the delicate balance of our gut microflora out of whack, and potentially encouraging the proliferation of bad bacteria). Given that the gut has a major role to play in inflammation (as well as so many other body processes), this alone is enough reason to avoid artificial sweeteners entirely (see this article for healthier alternatives). In addition, some studies suggest that artificial sweeteners may still raise insulin, and may be neurotoxic (depleting some important brain chemicals).
Animal products are inherently inflammatory, not only because they are more acidic in the body, but also because, unless you are eating grass-fed, organic meat (which most people aren’t), there is a very high likelihood that your meat is full of pesticides, hormones, antibiotics, and residues of other medications given to the animal. If going fully plant-based seems a little daunting or you don’t know where to start, try cutting down your meat intake to just once a week, or get in touch for help and support with plant-based recipes, meal planning, shopping, and more.
Finally, some people are intolerant to nightshade vegetables and plants (such as tomatoes, aubergine, potatoes, etc.), which includes certain herbal supplements such as Ashwagandha. If you suspect this might be the case for you, I strongly suggest you try an elimination diet, cutting them out of your diet entirely for at least 3 weeks, and then introducing them back in for 3 days, making a note of how you feel during the elimination diet, and how you feel when you reintroduce the food.
If you do find that a particular food group is an issue for you, this doesn't mean you can never eat those foods again! It just means you might have to keep them as a once a month treat (or even less), and be very mindful of how you feel (physically and mentally) when you eat them. There are certain things that I would recommend not adding back in – namely sugar, dairy, vegetable oils, processed food, artificial sweeteners, meat, and, to a certain extent, gluten – as there is no health benefit to these foods that can’t be obtained from a better source.
So there you have it, the top 13 most pro-inflammatory foods. Have you cut any of these out of your diet already? Which would you struggle with the most? Let me know in the comments below!