Proven Inflammatory Foods to Avoid According to Science

Inflammatory Foods: Proven Foods to Avoid that Cause Inflammation

Certain foods are known to increase inflammation in the body which can impact on your general health. Avoiding inflammatory foods such as sugar, trans fats, refined carbs, and processed meats can help lower your risk of chronic disease. Eating too many foods that cause inflammation has been linked to rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Of course, inflammation has its role to play in keeping your body healthy and fighting off infections. Inflammatory responses increase your body’s defenses and promote healing. However, it’s long-term inflammation that can have a detrimental effect on your health.


In this article, you will learn about pro inflammatory foods and why you should avoid them. You will also find out what scientific research has revealed about the dangers of consuming high inflammatory foods.

What is Inflammation?

Inflammation can have a positive or negative impact on your health depending on the situation.

Doctors say that inflammation is your body’s way to protect itself when you are sick or injured.

Short-term (acute) inflammation causes an increase in white blood cells and other antibodies. These rush to the infected area of your body to kill infections or repair tissue. (1)

For example, germs in a cut or wound will cause an inflammatory response that causes swelling, redness, pain, and possibly pus.

Inflammation can also cause blocked sinuses, feeling sick, or having a fever if you have a cold or the flu. This type of inflammation goes down when the infection or wound heals. (1)

On the other hand, low-grade inflammation or chronic inflammation can have a negative effect on your health. Long-term inflammation can last for months or years and can result in chronic disease. Chronic inflammation can be caused by recurrent infections, an autoimmune disorder, or increased oxidative stress in the body. (2)

How Diet Affects Inflammation

There is growing evidence that diet plays a role in inflammation and there are a number of inflammatory foods to avoid.

Researchers have found that a diet containing foods that cause inflammation can cause higher levels of inflammatory markers. Pro inflammatory foods such as refined sugars, processed cereals, or refined vegetable oils, can result in a number of health problems. Inflammatory foods have been linked to the increase in obesity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and autoimmune conditions. (3, 4)

The journal Nutrition in Clinical Practice reported that certain foods drive pro inflammatory proteins called cytokines. For example, C-reactive protein (CRP), interleukin-6 (IL-6), and tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-α) are associated with inflammatory effects. (5)

Certain foods such as legumes, vegetables and fruits have shown to have anti-inflammatory effects. (5)

Also, beverages such as coffee can protect against inflammation. However, some studies also show that too much coffee can cause inflammation and impact on the cardiovascular system. (6, 7)

Foods that Cause Inflammation

Let’s look in more detail at what causes inflammation and which inflammatory foods you should avoid.

Sugar Causes Inflammation

Refined sugar can be harmful to your health as it promotes inflammation and other chronic diseases.


Sugar added to foods comes in many forms. Table sugar (sucrose), high-fructose corn syrup, and glucose are added to many foods, even so-called healthy foods, to improve the taste.

What is the link between added sugar and inflammation?

Research has found that sugar added to beverages and food increases inflammatory markers in the body. Studies have shown that increased sugar intake is linked to an increased C-reactive protein (CRP) and an increased inflammatory response. One study found that fructose was the worst type of sugar for inflammation. (8)

Studies involving healthy subjects found that a high-fructose diet increased levels of LDL cholesterol. This is the type of cholesterol that is associated with heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. (9)

What is concerning about high sugar intake is that it can impact on the effect of anti-inflammatory foods. For example, a study found that a high sucrose intake counteracted the anti-inflammatory effect of omega-3 fatty acids. (10)

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that sugary sodas can increase the chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis in women. In fact, sugar-based drinks were one of the major factors in increasing the risk of rheumatoid arthritis. (11)

Foods containing high fructose corn syrup have also been linked with an increase of inflammatory diseases such as diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. (12, 13)

One study involving mice found that an increase of sucrose in the diet increased the risk of breast cancer. (14)

Another way that sugar is connected which low-grade inflammation is that it increases uric acid levels. When compared to consuming milk, water, or diet cola, sucrose-sweetened drinks cause more uric acid in the blood. This has been associated with an increase in health complications due to inflammation. (15)

Other inflammatory diseases linked to sugary foods and fructose include diabetes, fatty liver disease, cancer, and heart disease. (16, 17, 18, 19)

Of course, it is fine to eat fruit that contains small amounts of fructose or sucrose. Fresh fruits and vegetables also contain other nutrients that are good for your health. However, consuming a lot of foods containing fructose and other refined sugars is not good for your health.

Inflammatory foods containing added sugars include pastries, soft drinks, cakes, bottled smoothies, candies, and certain low-fat products.

Learn how to spot some of the signs that you are eating too much sugar.

Artificial Trans Fats Trigger Inflammation

When it comes to fats and your health, it’s important to remember that not all fats are created equal. Some types of fat cause inflammation whereas others have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Which are the types of fats that are on the inflammatory foods list?

The journal PLoS One reports that trans fats promote inflammation and can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease. Artificially-produced trans fats are often found in partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. (20)


Trans fats have been linked to inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, inflammation of the arteries, and high cholesterol. (21, 22, 23)

One study found that women whose diet include high levels of trans fats were more at risk for inflammatory disease than those who consumed healthier fats. (24)

Other studies have shown that trans fats drive inflammation as they increase CRP, IL-6, and TNFR-2 – all inflammatory markers in the body. (25)

The Journal of Lipid Research reported that a diet high in hydrogenated and saturated fats can cause inflammatory markers to rise in men with high cholesterol. (26)

According to researchers from Harvard Medical School, even just a small amount of trans fats or partially hydrogenated oils can greatly increase your risk of heart disease. (27)

Inflammatory foods that contain partially hydrogenated vegetable oil (trans fats) include French fries, certain margarines, some cookies and pastries, and fast foods.

Certain Vegetable Oils and Seed Oils Can Increase Low-Grade Inflammation

Although vegetable oils are from plant sources, some of them can trigger inflammation.

A 2016 study found that a diet high in soybean oil can increase certain pro inflammatory cytokines. Soybean oil can also inhibit the effect of certain anti-inflammatory foods. (28)

One of the reasons why some vegetable oils such as soybean oil are high inflammatory foods is that they contain high levels of omega-6. Studies show that consuming too much omega-6 fatty acids and not enough omega-3 can increase your risk of chronic inflammatory diseases. (29, 30)

Other studies have found that some of the worst oils for inflammation are corn oil, sunflower oil, and soybean oils. However, plant-based oils such as flaxseed oil are high in omega-3 and can help lower inflammation. (31)

As already mentioned, not all oils are created equal and not all plant-based oils cause inflammation. For example, olive oil is an anti-inflammatory food because it can inhibit pro inflammatory enzymes. Olive oil has also been linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, (32) and has many proven health benefits.

You can learn about the benefits of taking omega-3 fatty acids to help lower inflammation in your body.

Refined Carbohydrates Cause Inflammatory Response

Eating too many refined carbs in the form of white bread, pasta, cakes, and pastries can promote inflammation.

The reason why many refined carbs are on the inflammatory foods list is that they quickly turn into sugar during digestion. This can cause a sharp rise in your insulin levels which causes an increase of pro inflammatory cytokines. These types of refined foods have a high glycemic index (GI) because they quickly metabolize.

The journal Nutrients reported in 2018 that foods with a high GI score increase inflammation. However, switching to healthier carb sources that contain fiber and other nutrients can have an inflammation-lowering effect. (33)

When studying which foods cause inflammation, researchers have found that excessive amounts of refined, nutrient-deficient carbs can raise inflammation. Too many refined carbohydrate-rich foods cause insulin resistance and an increase of inflammatory markers. (34)


One study involving over 2,500 men and women found that high GI foods were associated with increased inflammation. (35)

Another study found that consuming foods that get digested quickly can aggravate inflammatory responses in the body. A diet consisting mainly of refined carbs can increase the risk of chronic diseases. (36)

Researchers have also found that the Western diet mainly consists of inflammatory foods. Refined carbs, high amounts of saturated fats, food additives, and omega-6 can all aggravate inflammatory bowel conditions. (37)

It is good to remember that not all carbohydrates are bad for you. Learn about why your body needs carbs, different types of carbs and what you should keep in mind if you choose a low-carb diet.

Certain Artificial Additives and Sweeteners Can Cause Inflammation

There are some foods that cause inflammation because they contain artificial sweeteners and other additives.

One of the reasons why certain synthetic additives make foods inflammatory is that they can affect your gut microbiota. Some research has found that some substances used to thicken foods can cause intestinal inflammation. (38)

The journal Nutrients reports that recent evidence shows that artificial additives can play a role in increasing inflammation. For example, P-80 (an emulsifier) has been linked to intestinal inflammation and sucralose and saccharin (artificial sweeteners) can increase inflammatory enzymes in the liver. (39)

Low-calorie sweeteners can also upset the bacterial balance in the gut and leads to an increase of pro inflammatory cytokines. (40)

You may be interested to find out which other additives may be lurking in your food that are bad for you.

Excessive Alcohol Causes Higher Levels of Inflammation

Alcohol and inflammation are closely linked because too much alcohol can affect how the liver processes certain enzymes.

Studies into the effect alcohol have on inflammation have found that chronic alcohol use can increase inflammatory markers. This can lead to chronic inflammation in alcoholic liver disease. (41)

One study found that alcohol consumption was directly linked to an increase of CRP pro inflammatory cytokines. (42)

Other studies have found that alcohol can increase the risk of rheumatoid arthritis in women. Drinking alcohol every day can lead to more IL-6 and higher levels of inflammatory markers. (43)

Learn more about the negative effect that too much alcohol can have on your liver and inflammation.

Processed Meat Can Increase Inflammation

A diet rich in red meat or processed meat can raise levels of inflammatory markers and cause inflammation.

A 2017 study involving over 1,200 men and women found that red and processed meat consumption increased inflammation. A meat-rich diet led to an increase of CRP, TNF-α, and IL-6. Researchers concluded that this increase in pro inflammatory markers could increase the risk of cancer and obesity. (44)

Although meat is a good source of protein, more and more doctors are recommending increasing the amount of plant-based protein.

Learn more about the best non-meat types of protein to help keep your body strong and healthy.


Fast Food and Inflammation

Fast foods are among the worst foods for inflammation due to their high content of processed ingredients.

The Nutrition Journal reported that eating too much salt, sugar, and saturated fat can lead to increased inflammation. A diet lacking in micronutrients not only affects the gut’s microbiota, which causes inflammation, but also makes you more susceptible to infection. (45)

Researchers have found that fast foods and processed foods contain many of the inflammatory factors mentioned in this article. Too much sugar, omega-6, trans fats, and saturated fats can all increase inflammatory responses. (45)

Also, a fast-food style breakfast probably isn’t the best way to start your day. The journal Metabolism reported that a high-fat, energy-dense start to the day increases oxidative stress and inflammation. This comes with an increased risk of heart disease. (46)

One of your best options for breakfast may be oatmeal because it doesn’t cause inflammation. Oatmeal is anti-inflammatory because it contains fiber which lowers the C-reactive protein. (47)

Do Eggs Cause Inflammation?

There are some conflicting reports on whether eggs cause inflammation or not.

For example, research published in 2015 found that an egg for breakfast may be better for inflammation than an oatmeal breakfast. Eggs had a similar effect on glucose metabolism, however, egg consumption seemed to reduce TNF-α inflammatory markers in people with type 2 diabetes. (48)

Another study found that eggs are recognized as a functional food that contain a variety of bioactive compounds that can influence pro- and anti-inflammatory pathways. The researchers found that the effects of egg consumption on inflammation varies across different populations, including those that are classified as healthy, overweight, metabolic syndrome, and type 2 diabetic. (49)

You may be surprised to learn that there are fewer calories in eggs than you may think. Learn more about the benefits of eating an egg every day.

Do Milk and Dairy Cause Inflammation?

The question if dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese cause inflammation is very controversial. Recent scientific evidence points to conflicting evidence and inconsistent results.

One lab study found that pasteurized milk products such as buttermilk, milk, and yogurt have an anti-inflammatory effect. (50)

A 2016 review on the intake of milk and your health found that consuming dairy products can help prevent chronic disease. Consuming milk and dairy products was associated with a lower risk of certain cancers and type 2 diabetes. (51)

However The Arthritis Foundation reports on certain links between dairy and inflammation. Some studies seem to indicate dairy product may increase low-grade inflammation. However, other studies have shown that milk has an overall anti-inflammatory effect and also contains a wide range of nutrients. (52)

The Arthritis Foundation mentions that although there is conflicting information, a 2017 review of 52 clinical studies, published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, concluded that dairy generally has anti-inflammatory effects, except in people allergic to cow’s milk. However, the researchers noted there is surprisingly little known about what components of dairy products might be helpful versus harmful. (52, 58)

One of the reasons why dairy may cause inflammation in some people is if a person is allergic or has a sensitivity to milk. A 2017 review of dairy products and inflammation found that an allergy to cow’s milk causes an inflammatory response. However, in general, milk is associated with anti-inflammatory activity. (53)

The Arthritis Foundation mentions the most consistent evidence so far centers on yogurt which decreased inflammation and decreased insulin resistance. It is believed that the anti-inflammatory element in yogurt comes from the probiotics it contains, however more trials are needed. (52)

If you can’t take dairy products or want to restrict your milk consumption, find out about some great non-dairy sources of calcium or try these milk substitutes.

What About Gluten and Inflammation?

The Arthritis Foundation published an article about “The Connection Between Gluten And Arthritis” in which the current recommendation is to avoid gluten if you have a gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease, but there is no general recommendation to avoid gluten if you suffer from arthritis but don’t suffer from gluten sensitivity or Celiac disease.

While the research is still debating about this point, bear in mind that not all whole grains contain gluten (like amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, oats, brown and purple rice and sorghum), and you can still include these in your diet.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Just as there are some foods that cause inflammation, there are many foods that help to inhibit pro inflammatory enzymes in the body.

Some of the best foods to reduce inflammation include the following:

Turmeric is anti-inflammatory. Studies have shown that turmeric (curcumin) blocks inflammatory cytokines and can help protect against chronic inflammatory diseases. (54)

Ginger. Similar to turmeric, ginger is an anti-inflammatory food and that may reduce your risk of heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. (55)

Omega-3. Taking fish oil supplements (omega-3) can help to reduce the effect of too much omega-6. Omega-3 supplements are helpful if you suffer from painful inflammatory-related diseases. (56)

Virgin coconut oil. Studies on rats have found that compounds in coconut oil can help reduce inflammation that is associated with obesity. (57)

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