Which foods cause inflammation?

Inflammation is a natural process in the body that helps fight infections, injuries, and toxins. However, chronic inflammation is linked to several diseases and conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, and cancer. Diet plays a major role in inflammation – some foods cause inflammation, while others help reduce it. This article will examine which foods are most likely to cause inflammation and which ones may help decrease it.

Foods that cause inflammation

Certain foods are more likely to trigger inflammation due to their high saturated fat content, added sugars, and lack of nutrients. Foods that tend to cause inflammation include:

Processed meats

Processed meats like bacon, sausage, hot dogs, salami, and deli meats are high in saturated fats and preservatives like sodium and nitrates. These can trigger inflammatory pathways in the body. Studies show processed meat consumption is linked with higher levels of inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein (CRP).

Sugary foods and beverages

Added sugars in sweets, sodas, and other sweetened beverages promote inflammation. They cause spikes in blood sugar levels and increase risk of obesity, which drives chronic inflammation. Fructose sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) appear to be especially inflammatory.

Refined grains

Refined grains like white bread, pasta, rice, pizza, and crackers break down quickly into sugar in the body. This leads to surges in blood sugar and insulin that stimulate inflammatory pathways. Whole grains don’t cause the same spikes and are better alternatives.

Trans fats

Found in margarines, packaged baked goods, fried foods, and some oils, trans fats promote widespread inflammation. They not only increase bad LDL cholesterol but lower good HDL cholesterol, raising inflammation and heart disease risk.

Excess alcohol

Heavy alcohol consumption triggers inflammatory pathways in several ways – by damaging the lining of the gut, promoting liver disease, and leading to obesity. Moderate intake may not have the same effect.

Excess saturated and omega-6 fatty acids

While omega-6 fatty acids are essential, the typical Western diet contains too many. This throws off the balance with anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. Saturated fats in red and processed meats, cheese, and other full-fat dairy also drive inflammation.

Refined carbohydrates and sugars

Refined grains, like white bread and pastries, have had the fibrous bran and nutrient-dense germ removed, leaving just the starchy endosperm. Without fiber, they cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. The same goes for table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup. These spikes promote inflammatory pathways.

Foods that reduce inflammation

Some foods are inherently anti-inflammatory and protective against chronic inflammation due to their antioxidant content and fiber. Anti-inflammatory foods to emphasize include:

Leafy greens

Spinach, kale, arugula, collards, and other leafy green vegetables are loaded with antioxidants like vitamin C, beta-carotene, kaempferol, and quercetin. These help quench inflammation and free radical damage.

Cruciferous vegetables

Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, and other cruciferous veggies are high in inflammation-fighting sulfur compounds like sulforaphane. They also boost the antioxidant glutathione to reduce oxidative stress.

Fatty fish

Oily fish like salmon, mackerel, sardines, and herring are rich in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA. Aim for at least two servings per week.


Nuts like almonds, walnuts, pecans, and pistachios deliver fiber, plant-based protein, and inflammation-quelling minerals like magnesium and polyphenols. Enjoy them in moderation due to high calorie density.

Olive oil

Olive oil is loaded with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats and antioxidants like oleocanthal that show potent anti-inflammatory benefits. Use it as your primary cooking oil.


Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, and strawberries are brimming with antioxidants called anthocyanins that tackle inflammation and oxidative stress.

Green tea

The polyphenols in green tea like epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) block inflammatory pathways. Opt for brewed green tea over bottled to avoid added sugars.


Red bell peppers, chili peppers, and cayenne are rich in the antioxidant vitamin C, beta-carotene, and quercetin. Spice up your meals with chili flakes and cayenne.


Mushrooms contain anti-inflammatory antioxidants like ergothioneine and selenium, as well as immune-boosting beta-glucans. Enjoy shiitake, maitake, and oyster varieties.


Beets are colored by betalain antioxidants that battle inflammation. They also deliver fiber, folate, and plant nitrates that boost nitric oxide and blood flow.


Turmeric contains the powerful antioxidants curcumin that not only inhibits inflammatory chemicals but boosts production of anti-inflammatory ones. Add it generously to curries and stews.


Gingerol, the main active compound in ginger, suppresses inflammatory prostaglandins and leukotrienes, providing strong anti-inflammatory effects. Use fresh ginger in stir fries, broths, and sauces.


Garlic contains anti-inflammatory sulfur compounds like allicin that may inhibit inflammatory cytokines in the body. Add it crushed or minced to dishes for the best benefits.

Foods that both cause and reduce inflammation

Some foods have varying effects on inflammation depending on how they are consumed and prepared. These include:


Tomatoes are rich in the antioxidant lycopene, especially when cooked, which lowers inflammatory markers. But canned and bottled tomato sauce is high in added sugar and salt, which drive inflammation when consumed excessively.


Eggs provide inflammation-lowering minerals like selenium and zinc. However, the way eggs are cooked impacts inflammation – fried eggs in inflammatory oils induce more inflammation versus boiled eggs or poached eggs.

Soy products

Soy contains isoflavones that help lower inflammatory markers like CRP. But highly processed forms like soy protein isolates and soybean oil contain pro-inflammatory linoleic acid.

Corn oil

Corn oil contains a form of inflammatory omega-6 linoleic acid. But it also contains the antioxidant plant compound lutein, which may counter some of these effects.


Potatoes are a nutritious vegetable rich in potassium and vitamin C. But fried potatoes cooked in inflammatory oils raise inflammation, whereas boiled or baked potatoes are anti-inflammatory.

Steps to reduce inflammation through diet

Making strategic shifts in your diet and lifestyle can go a long way in fighting inflammation:

Limit processed foods and sugars

Cut out processed snacks like chips, crackers, and cookies that are high in inflammatory vegetable oils, salt, and added sugars. Reduce your intake of sodas, fruit juices, and other sugary drinks as well.

Increase anti-inflammatory foods

Load up your diet with more vegetables, fruits, nuts, fatty fish, olive oil, and herbs like turmeric and ginger. This ensures you get ample antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds.

Avoid inflammatory cooking oils

Say no to corn, cottonseed, sunflower, and other high omega-6 vegetable oils. Cook only with extra-virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil, which are more neutral for inflammation.

Season smartly

Skip the salt shaker and instead use anti-inflammatory seasoning blends with garlic, rosemary, thyme, oregano, basil, curry powder, saffron, etc. Avoid seasoning heavily with table salt.

Balance your fats

Focus on getting more anti-inflammatory omega-3s by including fatty fish, walnuts, ground flax and chia seeds. Limit pro-inflammatory saturated fats by cutting back on red and processed meats and full-fat dairy.

Manage weight

Excess fat, especially around the abdomen, drives chronic inflammation. Losing even 5-10% of your bodyweight can dramatically lower inflammatory markers like CRP.

Foods ranked by inflammation potential

Here is a summary ranking foods from most inflammatory to most anti-inflammatory:

Food group Inflammatory potential
Packaged snacks and baked goods Very high
Fried foods Very high
Sugary beverages Very high
Processed meats Very high
Refined grains High
Full-fat dairy Moderate
Red meat Moderate
Tropical oils Moderate
Corn oil Moderate
Wine Low
Nuts Low
Whole grains Low
Lean poultry Low
Coffee Low
Olive oil Very low
Fatty fish Very low
Fruits and vegetables Very low
Herbs and spices Very low


Chronic inflammation drives a range of diseases and unwanted health conditions. Diet powerfully impacts inflammation levels in the body. Processed and sugary foods tend to be highly inflammatory and raise inflammatory markers like CRP. Anti-inflammatory foods like fruits, vegetables, fatty fish, olive oil, and herbs protect against inflammation. Aim to limit inflammatory foods as much as possible and focus on incorporating more anti-inflammatory foods into your regular diet. Staying active and maintaining a healthy body weight also helps lower chronic inflammation.

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