10 Inflammatory Foods You Need To Ditch Now, According To A Functional Medicine Expert

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Spend any time reading about health and wellness and chances are high that you’ve come across the topic of inflammation. Although inflammation is a natural, protective response from your body it can quickly spiral out of control due to various inflammatory triggers we face on a daily basis including toxin exposure, stress, and our diets. The reality is, the food we eat on a daily basis either soothes inflammation or fans the flame.

In my telehealth functional medicine clinic, I talk with people everyday about the impact the food they eat has on their overall health. But how exactly does food play a role in inflammation and how do we know what inflammatory foods we should be avoiding? Keep reading for my complete rundown on everything you need to know about eating to quell inflammation - including the top inflammatory foods to watch out for.

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How does food influence inflammation?

Even though it might seem overwhelming at first, it is actually a good thing that food has such control over our inflammation levels. Regardless of our genetics, it puts the power back into our hands when it comes to our health. Studies even estimate that close to 77% of our health is determined by our choices - including the foods we eat and don’t eat.

Unfortunately, there is no single diet that is healthy for everyone across the board. That’s because the foods that work well for someone else may not work for you and your particular biochemistry. What triggers inflammation in you might be what helps calm inflammation in another person based on factors like genetic variants and underlying gut dysfunctions.

Inflammatory foods to avoid

With all that said, after years of consulting patients I’ve found a handful of foods that are generally more inflammatory than others, specifically when eaten on a regular basis in high amounts or for those with underlying health problems. 

Since I’ve seen the effect these inflammatory foods have on people’s health firsthand, it inspired me to write my book The Inflammation Spectrum. In it, I teach you how to recognize that inflammation is manifesting in your body and then walk you through an elimination diet of eliminating these top inflammatory foods in order to discover what foods cause inflammation in your body. 

Sugar

If you could only give up one inflammatory food, sugar would be toward the top of the list. There are endless studies showing that refined sugars including high-fructose corn syrup, white sugar, and brown sugar, causes inflammation in most people and increases your risk for chronic health problems like diabetes, liver disease, and heart disease. In fact, a high sugar intake increases your risk of dying from heart disease even if you aren’t overweight! What do all of these health problems have in common? Oh yeah, inflammation.

Gluten-containing grains

Gluten is a hot button topic because it is found in so many of our beloved foods. Think pasta, bread, cakes, and cookies. But gluten is difficult to digest, leading to an inflamed gut lining and leaky gut syndrome. When this happens undigested food proteins like gluten and lipopolysaccharides can pass into the bloodstream where they don’t belong creating a cascade of chronic inflammation throughout your entire body.

Gluten-free grains

While gluten gets all the attention, there are actually many other aspects of grain that can trigger inflammation.

  • Lectins: These proteins are part of a plant’s defense system and are indigestible leading to digestive distress and inflammation.
  • Enzyme inhibitors: Grains contain alpha-amylase and protese inhibited that can inhibit your body’s natural digestive enzymes that help break down your food.

You may notice that only some grains bother you or you need to avoid them altogether but if you are already struggling with inflammatory health problems, it might be worth further examining how they affect you.

Alcohol

Alcohol is inflammatory for two reasons. One, it increases the production of inflammatory endotoxins and two, it increases intestinal permeability that can lead to chronic inflammation throughout your body. Unlike some foods on this list, the inflammatory affect of alcohol isn’t based on bio individuality. However, how much you can personally handle, can depend on your personal health. You can read more about the relationship between alcohol and inflammation and learn more about the healthiest alcohol options in my guide here.

Dairy

If you grew up thinking that dairy was good for you, you aren’t alone. The endless Got Milk? commercials we were exposed to as kids had us believing all the hype. After all, dairy is high in vital nutrients like fat, protein, and calcium. However, there are many aspects of dairy - especially conventional dairy - that can be extremely inflammatory for most people.

  • Lactose: If you are lactose intolerant you may lack the enzyme responsible for helping you digest dairy.
  • Casein: This milk protein can cause a similar inflammatory reaction as gluten. If you have leaky gut syndrome, prolonged dairy exposure could result in symptoms of digestive distress and autoimmune-inflammatory symptoms like rashes or joint pain.
  • Additives: Conventional dairy is pumped full of hormones and antibiotics that could potentially have a negative impact on your health and inflammation levels.

I have found that some of my patients can tolerate sheep, goat, or camel milk even if they don’t do well with cow’s milk. Some people also find that they can tolerate a little bit of grass-fed, organic dairy every once in a while. Again, it is all up to bioindividuality!

Industrialized seed oils

Cooking oils like vegetable, canola, soybean, and safflower are nothing but inflammatory. These oils contain polyunsaturated fats that oxidize easily, especially when heated, making them a major source of inflammatory free radicals. Make the switch to coconut, avocado, ghee, and cold-pressed olive oil instead.

Nightshades

Nightshades contain alkaloids that are inflammatory, particularly for people diagnosed with arthritis, lupus, or other autoimmune conditions. Potatoes, tomatoes, and peppers are some of the most popular nightshades.

Eggs

Eggs are a nutrient-dense superfood that a lot of people can eat without any issues. For some people, particularly those with autoimmune conditions, the albumin in egg whites can be inflammatory.

Legumes

Legumes are towards the bottom of this list because they have a variety of qualities that can make them inflammatory - for some people. This is because they contain lectins and phytic acid that can trigger inflammation by acting as a “danger signal” that ends up activating the NLRP3 inflammasome. In a healthy individual, your immune system has enough antibodies to protect us from lectin’s effects but some people are just more sensitive to lectins - including those with autoimmune conditions - making legumes a no-go.

Nuts and seeds

Nuts like walnuts and seeds like hemp power packed superfoods loaded with nutrients like healthy fats and protein. Their small yet filling delivery method makes them a go-to for many health conscious individuals. But if you are struggling with underlying gut dysfunction or autoimmune-inflammatory problems, the roughage of nuts and seeds can further perpetuate inflammation and irritation in your gut. Also, most nuts that you buy at the store are roasted with inflammatory seed oils.

What foods quickly reduce inflammation?

Now that we know the answer to what the most inflammatory foods are, what foods can you focus on to soothe inflammation? With all foods you need to take into account your specific health case, but these superfoods have been shown to have powerful anti-inflammatory abilities.

  • Turmeric
  • Wild-caught seafood
  • Green tea
  • Blueberries
  • Dark leafy greens (spinach, Kale)
  • Olives/olive oil

Additional tips to reduce inflammation

Food is foundational for supporting healthy inflammation levels but there are many lifestyle tools that you can incorporate into your daily life to further help drive-down inflammation.

Try intermittent fasting

Giving your gut a break from having to digest food has been shown to relieve a variety of inflammatory conditions including asthma and IBS.

Find a stress relieving practice that works for you

Our bodies were not built for the chronic stress that our modern society is so accustomed to. In fact, the more stress our bodies go through the higher are inflammation levels typically are. Whether you like to meditate, go on daily walks, journal, pray, or something else, finding a practice that you can sustainably incorporate into your life is key for long-term stress relief.

Get physical

While exercise does have its anti-inflammatory benefits, I’m talking about physical touch like cuddling and sex. Research shows that physical touch releases the hormone oxytocin that lowers pro-inflammatory cytokines and boosts inflammation-fighting T-regulatory cells.

For a full guide to overcoming chronic inflammation, check out my article here.

READ NOW: How Chronic Inflammation Wrecks Your Health + What To Do About It

Seeking help from a functional medicine doctor

Remember, inflammation is something that you have control over! By focusing on eating a diet lower in inflammatory foods and higher in anti-inflammatory superfoods, you can reclaim your health. If you think you are struggling with inflammation and don’t know where to start with your healing journey, schedule a telehealth consultation today to learn more about how we can help you with functional medicine. Together, we can help you identify the areas of your life that are contributing to chronic inflammation to come up with personalized recommendations for your specific health case.

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References:

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  2. Annie T. Ginty, Sarah M. Conklin,"Short-term supplementation of acute long-chain omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids may alter depression status and decrease symptomology among young adults with depression: A preliminary randomized and placebo controlled trial" Psychiatry Research, Volume 229, Issues 1–2, 2015, Pages 485-489, ISSN 0165-1781, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2015.05.072.
  3. DiNicolantonio, James J, and James H O'Keefe. “The Importance of Marine Omega-3s for Brain Development and the Prevention and Treatment of Behavior, Mood, and Other Brain Disorders.” Nutrients vol. 12,8 2333. 4 Aug. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12082333
  4. Jonsjö, Martin A et al. “The role of low-grade inflammation in ME/CFS (Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) - associations with symptoms.” Psychoneuroendocrinology vol. 113 (2020): 104578. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.104578
  5. Hewlings, Susan J, and Douglas S Kalman. “Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health.” Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,10 92. 22 Oct. 2017, doi:10.3390/foods6100092
  6. de Vega, Wilfred C et al. “DNA methylation modifications associated with chronic fatigue syndrome.” PloS one vol. 9,8 e104757. 11 Aug. 2014, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0104757
  7. Ohishi, Tomokazu et al. “Anti-inflammatory Action of Green Tea.” Anti-inflammatory & anti-allergy agents in medicinal chemistry vol. 15,2 (2016): 74-90. doi:10.2174/1871523015666160915154443

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BY DR. WILL COLE

Evidence-based reviewed article

Dr. Will Cole, DNM, IFMCP, DC is a leading functional medicine expert who consults people around the globe, starting one of the first functional medicine telehealth centers in the world. Named one of the top 50 functional and integrative doctors in the nation, Dr. Will Cole provides a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. He is also the host of the popular The Art of Being Well podcast and the New York Times bestselling author of Intuitive Fasting, Ketotarian, Gut Feelings, and The Inflammation Spectrum.

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