Which foods are inflammatory?
Inflammation is a natural process designed to protect the body from harmful effects, such as those caused by injury or infection. Damage to cells caused by either of these things will trigger a chemical response from the immune system which increases blood flow to the affected area. The purpose of this is to get rid of the harmful agent and initiate repair work.
Although inflammation in itself is initially helpful, chronic inflammation can occur when the process lingers longer than the threat. This can cause various symptoms, including fatigue and more severe aches and pains.
Inflammation is also a key feature of conditions like arthritis and allergies.
So, what foods might help to increase inflammation and should, therefore, be avoided to help manage the problem?
- White bread
- Processed foods
- Tinned foods
- Cakes and biscuits
- Meat slices
- Sweetened yoghurt
- Fried foods
As well as being pretty bad for our waistlines and cardiovascular health, too much pizza is problematic if you suffer from inflammatory conditions like arthritis. You see, pizza contains a whole lot of saturated fats which, according to studies, can trigger adipose (fat tissue) inflammation.1
Two slices of pizza contain about 10g of saturated fats – that's half of the daily allowance for women and a third of men's daily allowance. So, if this is a regular feature in your diet, it's easy to see how it could contribute to inflammation and make muscle and joint pain worse.
Simple swap: Read our blog 6 comfort foods made healthy for some tips on how to make pizza a little healthier!
As cheese is another food with a high saturated fat content, it makes it to number two on my list of inflammatory foods. (Bear in mind you mostly have cheese on pizza, giving pizza another black mark!)
Also, a 2018 study concluded that cheese had a 'pro-inflammatory status'.
In a seeming contradiction, another dairy product, natural 'live' yoghurt, actually appeared to have a protective effect against inflammation.2
It is thought that 'live' yoghurt has this effect because it contains probiotics that are not present in cheese. These appear to maintain a balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut and help to reduce the number of bad bacteria that can cause infections in the first place.
Probiotics may also help to keep the intestinal barrier strong. This prevents bacteria from getting into the bloodstream and triggering an inflammatory response from the immune system.
Researchers do admit, however, that this is a topic that needs to be studied in more depth to understand more clearly why each food acts in different ways.
Top tip: To see if cheese triggers inflammation in your body, you could cut it out of your diet for a short period to determine if it brings any improvement to your aches and pains. Remember, though, if making any changes to your diet, focus on one food at a time so that you are able to determine how much difference it makes to your symptoms.
Margarine contains omega 6 which, when consumed in excess, has been associated with increased inflammation. The problem lies with the fact that omega 6 can increase the presence of cells involved in inflammation.
As well as being present in margarine, omega 6 can be found in vegetable oils and salad dressings.
Simple swap: Avocado, hummus and nut butters can be spread on sandwiches to provide a healthy, tasty alternative to margarine.
4. White bread
White bread (as well as white rice and pasta) have what's called a high-glycaemic index. This means they tend to release energy quickly, but it also means they encourage the production of a group of compounds called advanced glycation end-products (AGEs). In small amounts, the body is able to deal with AGEs but too much, and they can accumulate and cause inflammation.
So, having these foods as a regular part of your diet will have a noticeable influence on inflammatory conditions.
Simple swap: Purchase brown/wholegrain bread, pasta and rice the next time you are doing your weekly shop.
5. Processed food
Heavily processed, highly refined foods (that are also full of artificial preservatives, colourings and flavourings), such as fast food takeaways and some microwaveable meals, can increase inflammation in several ways.
First, they contribute to weight gain which is known to raise the body's overall levels of inflammation. They are also high in saturated fats which we now know has a role in inflammation.
Another issue with processed food is that it often contains a food additive called mono-sodium glutamate (MSG) which may contribute to inflammation if it is a regular feature in the diet.
Top tip: Make your own healthy homemade takeaways with meal ideas from our recipe hub. Our BBQ Bean Burgers are an excellent place to start!
6. Tinned foods
Tinned foods, including soups, may also contain mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), making them another possible inflammatory food. Check ingredients lists before buying tinned products.
Simple swap: Cooking from fresh ingredients is always the best option. You can mix up your own soups using whatever ingredients are in your fridge or use one of our easy soup recipes.
7. Cakes and biscuits
Any kind of sweet treat with a high content of refined sugar will be likely to contribute to inflammation. That's because processed sugars release inflammatory chemicals known as cytokines.
Chocolate bars, pastries, desserts and fizzy drinks are some other culprits for high sugar content.
Simple swap: Use fruit to get your next sugar hit and gain the nutritional benefits these have to offer at the same time.
8. Meat slices
The problem with the nation's favourite sandwich filler is that these too contain advanced glycation end-products (AGEs) that promote inflammation.3 These are formed when meat, including bacon, sausage and sliced ham, are cooked at a high temperature.
Simple swap: Use veggie fillings such as homemade falafel in your sandwiches or wraps.
9. Sweetened yoghurts
Although natural yoghurt may have some benefits regarding the body's inflammatory response, sweetened varieties (of which there are plenty lining the supermarket shelves!) can be an issue.
This is because some options contain a chemical sweetener called aspartame which can trigger an inflammatory response in the body, particularly if it is regularly included in the diet. Low fat yoghurts with sweet flavours like toffee, chocolate or hazelnut are most likely to contain aspartame, so it is worth checking the product label before purchasing.
Other foods that can contain aspartame include ice-cream, some breakfast cereals and chewing gum.
Top tip: Look at my blog on anti-inflammatory foods to see what kind of things you should be including in your diet.
10. Fried foods
Finally, fried foods are also ones to avoid when it comes to managing inflammation. These are high in trans fats, which research shows are inflammatory in nature.
As well as being present in fried foods, trans fats can sometimes be listed as partially hydrogenated oils on product labels so it is a good idea to look out for these before purchasing a product.
Simple swap: Sauté, steam or grill food for a healthier alternative to frying.