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4 foods to avoid if you suffer from chronic inflammation

Updated March 15, 2024 - 2:56 pm

Inflammation is often visible — think red skin or a swollen knee. However, inflammation can also occur on the inside, and it’s not always so easy to detect.

“Inflammation is a physiological process involved in the defense of our body and the repair of tissues,” says registered dietitian Jenna Stangland, an adviser with health supplements company Momentous.

Stangland explains that inflammation can be triggered by infections, trauma, toxins or allergic reactions. Sometimes, it becomes chronic in the muscles and tissues. Unfortunately, Stangland says chronic inflammation carries risks.

“Chronic inflammation can end up stimulating the development of cardiovascular diseases, autoimmune disease, neurological disease or cancer,” Stangland says. “This type of inflammation can last several months as a result of inability to combat and reduce it.”

Diet isn’t a cure-all for chronic inflammation or the diseases it can trigger. However, it’s an important tool.

“Diet plays a significant role in inflammation, as certain foods can either promote or reduce inflammation in the body,” says Michelle Routhenstein, a preventive cardiology dietitian at EntirelyNourished.com.

Worst food for inflammation

One food in particular is worth avoiding if you have chronic inflammation, dietitians say.

“Deep-fried foods contain high levels of trans fat,” Stangland explains. “Reducing fat in the diet can aid in managing chronic inflammation symptoms.”

A recent study on mice found that trans fat consumption (found in French fries and anything fried and battered, cakes, pies and more) worsened metabolic diseases such as diabetes more than saturated fats (found in butter and red meat). The authors believe it’s because of inflammation.

Part of the issue with deep-fried foods is how they’re cooked.

“Heating fatty foods at high temperatures can increase the production of trans fats,” says Marie Spano, a Dymatize nutrition consultant. “In addition, heating foods high in carbohydrates can increase the production of a compound called advanced glycation end (AGEs). AGEs contribute to oxidative stress and inflammation.”

Instead of deep-frying foods, Spano suggests using another kitchen tool. “I recommend food that is cooked in a slow cooker at a lower temperature for longer cooking times,” Spano says.

3 other foods to minimize

Sugary foods and beverages: Stangland suggests limiting the consumption of food with tons of added sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. “These are often found in sugary snacks, cereals and more processed foods,” Stangland says.

A 2023 narrative review linked high intake of added sugar to increased risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It can even affect mood and cognition. However, you don’t need a ton of added sugar to enjoy your favorite tastes.

“Make homemade granola or oatmeal with whole grains and water,” Stangland recommends. “Swap out an apple juice or orange juice for a whole apple or orange.”

Red meat: A steak or burger here and there is probably fine, but you’ll want to avoid making it your primary source of protein.

“High levels of red meat have been seen to increase a pro-inflammatory biomarker, C-reactive protein (CRP),” Stangland says. “Consistent consumption of red meat maintains an elevated CRP, which would contribute to and support chronic inflammation.”

The high saturated fat content doesn’t help matters.

“Saturated fat directly increases inflammation by triggering cells to exert an inflammatory response,” Stangland says.

A 2022 systemic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials linked high total red meat intake and consumption of mixed red meat (a hybrid of processed and unprocessed) with higher CRP concentrations in the blood.

Highly refined carbs: Carbs are critical for giving our bodies energy. However, Routhenstein suggests keeping some on the back burner.

“Highly refined carbohydrates like white bread and white rice have a high glycemic index, meaning they can cause rapid spikes in blood sugar levels,” she says. This can lead to inflammation, insulin resistance and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and obesity.”

Opt for whole wheat bread and brown rice instead.

Eating to manage inflammation

All these “don’ts” may feel overwhelming. What should you be eating to reduce chronic inflammation?

“Nutrient-rich diets, including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean proteins and omega-3 fatty acids,” Routhenstein says.

You can find omega-3 fatty acids in foods like salmon, flaxseed and walnuts. “These sources have anti-inflammatory properties due to their antioxidants, phytonutrients and other beneficial compounds, reducing inflammation and supporting overall health,” Routhenstein says.

Still overwhelmed? Reach out for help. “A registered dietitian can provide you with diet and lifestyle recommendations to help manage and decrease symptoms,” Stangland says.

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