What Happens to your Body When Eating Inflammatory Foods

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by: Brigid Titgemeier MS, RDN, LD, IFNCP  |  June 9, 2021

You’ve heard that eating an anti-inflammatory diet is the goal. But what exactly is inflammation—and what really happens when you eat inflammatory foods? Read on.

When you hear the word “inflammation” what do you think? Infection? Pain? Chronic disease? Pizza?

These days, inflammation gets a bad rap—and in fairness, it can cause a significant amount of damage in the body when it’s chronic. But it’s also important to note that inflammation is actually a normal, protective part of your immune response. Whether you cut your finger slicing veggies or you catch whatever bug is going around your kid’s daycare, your body’s inflammatory response can be a savior! It’s part of your immune system’s attack on “bad guy” pathogens that enter your body and make you sick, and inflammation’s No. 1 goal is to clear whatever you’ve been exposed to out of your body. And while that can make you feel pretty miserable (a stuffy nose, aches, fatigue, and fever are all signs of inflammation), it’s actually a genius process.

However, while acute inflammation like this triggers protective inflammatory mechanisms, chronic inflammation—a.k.a. inflammation that hangs around and doesn’t go away once it does its intended job—can lead to big problems. In fact, when inflammation happens in an uncontrolled or inappropriate manner, it contributes to nearly every chronic and autoimmune disease. If the body is constantly exposed to inflammatory components through food, environmental toxins or other sources, the immune system can’t counter regulate and flip the inflammation switch to “off.” This in turn can increase your risk of conditions like asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases, depression, cardiovascular disease, insulin resistance, cognitive decline, osteoporosis, arthritis, obesity, and more.

In my virtual nutrition programs, we work with a lot of clients who are experiencing chronic inflammation—and we see autoimmune disorders, arthritis, non-stop infections, and a whole range of other imbalances as a result. When we take a close look at what these clients are eating, we often notice a lot of inflammatory foods. What we know is that a diet filled with inflammation-promoting meals will undoubtedly lead to a low-grade inflammatory response that remains active (read: it doesn’t go away!), which in turn can lead to tissue damage and disease.

First, What Makes a Food Inflammatory?

A diet rich in foods that are inflammatory can promote the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS), TNF-alpha, and interleukin 6—all signs the immune system has sprung into action! Inflammatory foods also tend to create an overall imbalance between inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines that are produced by the immune system. These reactions are highly personal but some of the biggest culprits that spark this immune system reaction include a diet rich in refined carbohydrates, fried foods, sugar-sweetened drinks, processed meats, alcohol, ultra processed foods and unhealthy fats.

While we know fried foods for instance can be inflammatory, it’s important to remember that one food eaten in one instance will not determine the net inflammatory outcome. Most often, it’s your comprehensive dietary patterns that matter the most.

For example, having that once-a-season hot dog when you go to a backyard BBQ or having a slice of sugar-filled chocolate cake on your birthday (hello, inflammatory foods!) isn’t likely to trigger an inflammatory response if your overall diet is rich in vegetables, lean protein, fiber, and healthy fats. That said, if you eat a lot of refined starches and unhealthy fats—and if you don’t get a lot of antioxidants and fiber through a diet that’s loaded with plant-based whole foods—that hot dog or piece of cake is more likely to trigger an inflammatory response. And unfortunately, inflammation is something that’ll build over time.

Signs Your Diet Is Contributing to an Inflammatory Response

Different people will experience a variety of different symptoms when eating a diet rich in inflammatory foods. This is one reason why it can be tricky to identify which foods are contributing to chronic inflammation. This is something we focus on in our programs, helping individuals identify sources of food-induced inflammation that are leading to adverse symptoms.

That said, eating too much added sugar and refined carbohydrates are pro-inflammatory for the population at large because large blood sugar fluctuations can lead to higher levels of inflammation. A new research study also found that experiencing repeated, excessive, and uncontrolled blood sugar responses, in addition to fat levels in the blood can overwhelm your body’s natural response mechanisms and contribute to inflammation. 

When it comes to common food allergens or sensitivities like gluten, dairy, soy, and eggs, you have to dig deeper to understand if the food is triggering an inflammatory response. This response is even more personalized to your body. If you have food allergies or sensitivities to these foods, eating them with contribute to inflammation. But it's hard to know for sure until you’ve tested your tolerance to these foods.

The responses you’ll experience after eating pro-inflammatory foods will likely range from mild to debilitating! If you regularly experience symptoms like diarrhea, bloating, sinus congestion, eczema, or acne, you’ll want to take a closer look at your diet. Even seemingly unrelated-to-food conditions like migraines, brain fog, and fatigue may actually be the result of a systemic, inflammatory response happening in your body.

An inflammatory diet can also affect weight loss and gain. In fact, research shows an association between excess visceral fat (read: belly fat) with an increased production of low-grade, chronic inflammation. How’s that for a Catch-22: The more excess fat you have, the more that fat produces inflammatory compounds that keep you in a cycle of inflammation!

Sometimes clients in our virtual nutrition practice who are dealing with chronic inflammation lose weight almost effortlessly when they decrease inflammatory foods in their diet. Sometimes this can happen without reducing calories or even adjusting macronutrients!

The Most Common Inflammatory Foods

While inflammatory food sources will differ for everyone, the most common inflammation-promoting foods, when overconsumed, for nearly everyone include:

  • Ultra-processed foods
  • Trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) 
  • Added sugars
  • Refined flours and carbohydrates
  • Omega-6 vegetable oils
  • Alcohol 

Also, keep in mind that if you are allergic or sensitive to a particular food (biggies can include gluten, dairy, eggs, and soy), that can trigger an immune response that will make the food pro-inflammatory for you.

It’s not just the food we eat that causes chronic inflammation; lifestyle factors like increased stress, sleep deprivation, smoking, being sedentary, and environmental exposure to toxins can also play a big role.

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (a.k.a. the SAD diet) is a major reason for our collective chronic inflammation. This common way of eating provides way too many calories, too few nutrients, and many more inflammatory foods than anyone should be eating. Research backs this up, consistently showing that the SAD diet is associated with an increased production of pro-inflammatory molecules. If your diet is high in sugar and processed foods, it’s very likely that your go-to diet may be contributing to underlying inflammation that’s preventing you from reaching your health goals.

How to Eat an Anti-Inflammatory Diet

First things first: To understand if you’re dealing with chronic inflammation, it’s important to have lab work done to assess inflammatory markers such as hs-CRP (high sensitivity C-reactive protein) and fibrinogen. Once you have those results, you’ll be in a better position to work with your dietitian or doctor to assess what needs to change in your diet to bring your inflammation down.

One of the best starting places is to decrease your intake of added sugars, refined carbohydrates, unhealthy fats, and alcohol. You may decide that the best choice for you is to remove inflammation-promoting foods like sugar and refined carbohydrates from your diet for a designated period of time to try to reset your taste buds and reduce inflammation. This can be done for any amount of time—often just a week or two will yield incredible results! Then, you can think about adding these foods back into your diet occasionally.

Food sensitivity or allergy testing is another avenue that can help you determine if your diet is contributing to some level of inflammation. In functional medicine, the gold standard is to remove common allergens or intolerances from your diet for six weeks, then reintroduce them one by one to identify if you experience any adverse symptoms. Foods that cause issues like gas, bloating, or other gastrointestinal issues—as well as skin conditions like acne or eczema—are likely ones that are prompting a negative response in your body, and you’ll want to steer clear of them going forward.

It’s also important to know that while certain foods can be inflammatory, there are also plenty of foods that are anti-inflammatory. Eating a diet rich in nutrient-dense foods that provide micronutrients, polyphenols, and phytonutrients can synergistically alter multiple pathways and lower the inflammatory cascade. The best way to do this is to add a lot of color to each meal! I typically recommend at least three colors per meal.

Some of the most anti-inflammatory food choices include:

  • Wild salmon
  • Spices like turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, basil, garlic, and rosemary
  • Dark leafy greens like kale, chard, and collard greens
  • Citrus fruits
  • Berries
  • Nuts (my anti-inflammatory faves are almonds, walnuts, and brazil nuts)
  • Oysters
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Dark chocolate (look for more than 70% cacao)
  • Ground flax seeds
  • Chia seeds 

For most of us, taking small and targeted steps towards improving the ratio of inflammatory to anti-inflammatory foods in our diet is the most sustainable path toward reducing or preventing chronic inflammation. Rather than take an all-or-nothing approach that has a 100% chance of backfiring over the long-term, we tell our clients to focus on gradually adding more anti-inflammatory foods into their diet. This approach tends to crowd out the junk, because you’re filling up on foods your body recognizes as good for you and you feel satisfied, too!

Interested in learning more about which foods may be causing chronic inflammation in your body? Or are you looking for one-on-one support on your journey toward better health? Learn more about our VIP Next Level Nutrition program here!

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