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The 15 Top Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

By Katherine George

Medically Reviewed by Julie Ching, MS, RDN, CDE

Inflammation is the body’s natural response to safeguard against foreign bacteria, viruses, and infection. When it senses a threat, the body will trigger the release of chemicals and white blood cells (our body’s germ fighters).

However, with certain inflammatory conditions, or autoimmune diseases—such as rheumatoid or osteoarthritis, fibromyalgia, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease, and multiple sclerosis—the immune system’s response is inflammatory even when there is no threat.

However avoiding these 15 foods may greatly reduce and soothe the inflammatory response…

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It’s no surprise that more than half of the world’s population suffers from cow milk intolerance or milk allergy, which is an allergy to casein (or milk protein). In fact, cow’s milk and cream cheese has been deemed a highly inflammatory food for the amount of stomach upset, constipation and diarrhea, hives, and breathing issues it causes.

If you suffer a milk intolerance or allergy, luckily there are a number of milk alternatives available. For instance, try swapping animal milk for almond milk, hemp milk, rice milk, or soy milk instead. All of these milk alternatives blend nicely with coffee, in baking, in sauces, in smoothies, and on cereal. And many, including soy milk, contain similar amounts of protein per serving.

Fatty Red Meats

Fatty red meats—like beef ribs, burgers, or ground beef, and other fatty cuts of beef—are considered inflammatory perpetrators because they are high in animal fats, which have been linked to various health conditions, such as chronic diabetes, heart disease, and cancer in several medical studies, including those most recently out of the University of California, San Francisco.

University of California, San Francisco researchers claim that, “[Consuming] too much of any fat is not good for your health [however] when it comes to cardiovascular health, some types of fats are healthier for your heart than others. Bad fats (many of which we’ll discuss more of later on in this article) include trans, saturated, and hydrogenated fats and oils, fatty meats, cream, cheese, and butter/margarine/shortening. Good fats include polyunsaturated and mono-unsaturated fats (i.e., sunflower and olive oil), nuts, avocados, and fatty fish (i.e., salmon).


I’ve already pinpointed cream cheese as a potential source of bad fat. However, research from the University College London attests that 60-percent of the world’s population can’t digest cow’s milk (or more particularly lactose, the main sugar in milk) as adults. This explains why cheese, particularly of the high-sodium, processed variety, cause inflammation—with natural, hard cheeses causing less issue due to lower sodium).

A 2013 Harvard study backs up this claim, finding that dairy rapidly alters the microorganisms residing in the gut and their capacity for high levels of inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract (GI). Specifically, researchers concluded that 2 days  after consuming an animal-based diet, bacteroides, alistipes, bilophila, and bacteroides microbe levels (as well as fungi, bacteria, and virus levels) increased and  quickly colonized the gut.


Margarine, and other spreads that are high in trans-fats or partially-hydrogenated oils, are best avoided entirely because they exacerbate the inflammatory response. Instead, practicing physician, author, and professor of family medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, Daphne Miller, recommends using olive oil or a clarified butter, like ghee, that’s rich in omega-6 fatty acids, but provides concentrated flavor in a small amount compared to regular butter.

Rather than stick margarine, which contains high levels of saturated fat and trans-fatty acids, opt for olive or canola oil, choose a lighter fat margarine variety, or choose margarine plant sterols or stanols (as long as you are not pregnant, a child, or those without high cholesterol) made with soybean and pine tree oils, which reduce LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol).

Processed, Cured Meats

Like fatty red meats, cured meats, or those preserved and processed using a combination of salt, nitrates, nitrite or sugar for longevity and flavoring (i.e., hot dogs, sausages, bologna, and other lunch meats) are known inflammatory offenders that have been linked to autoimmune conditions.

For healthy fats, swap the processed meats for fresh or frozen tuna, sardines, or salmon, and nuts and beans for an omega-3 boost. I’m in the habit of buying and grilling a fat of chicken breasts at the beginning of the week. This way, I always have a healthy protein on hand when I’m in a pinch, for pasta sauces, sandwiches, stir fries and more throughout the week.


The next time you raise a glass of alcoholic beer, cider, wine, or spirits, consider that the Harvard Medical School has long linked excessive alcohol consumption to chronic inflammation, particularly of the liver, which can cause heart attack, stroke, peripheral artery disease, vascular dementia, and cancerous tumor growth over time.

On the other hand, Harvard research claims that moderate drinking can lower risk of cardiovascular disease, and also the risk of heart attack or stroke for those at risk (including those with high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes) by increasing levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL, or “good” cholesterol). HDL levels are associated with better heart health and lower risk of cardiovascular disease.

Vegetable Oils

According to many renowned nutritional organizations, including California’s Beller Nutritional Institute, a diet too high in omega-6 fatty acids can cause inflammation. However, you can reduce inflammation by substituting omega-6 oils (i.e., soy, sunflower, and safflower) with an oil high in omega-3’s.

Common sources of plant oils rich in heart-healthy omega 3 fatty acids include extra virgin olive oil, expeller pressed canola oil, flaxseed oil, hemp oil, walnuts, soy beans, and tofu, which can be easily exchanged in most cooking recipes.

Food Additives

We’ve long heard the warnings about consuming a diet rich in processed foods. One reason is because they contain popular additives, such as monosodium glutamate (or MSG) and aspartame, which, according to studies from the Centre for Asthma and Respiratory Diseases at the University of Newcastle in Australia, have been linked to aggravating inflammatory symptoms in those with existing conditions (i.e., chronic asthma).

Nutritional biochemists from University of Newcastle studied the diets of 99 patients with asthma compared to those of 61 healthy people (without respiratory difficulties). The research revealed that inflammatory foods (those dubbed high in refined sugars and saturated fats) resulted in inflammation and overactivity in the immune system while anti-inflammatory foods (i.e., fresh veggies and fruit, foods high in soluble fiber) protected the gut from inflammation.


The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported that processed sugars are among some of the foods we consume that cause our body pain by increasing inflammation, overheating, redness, and swelling. CNN wrote about the subject and said our immune system is flagged which triggers inflammation when our body consumes bacteria, a food allergy, or encounters an imbalance like our blood glucose levels.

Refined Carbohydrates

We’ve been taught to stay far, far away from carbs, but in reality not ALL carbohydrates are bad. Humans have been eating unprocessed carbs like grasses, roots, and fruits for millions of years. What is true is that refined carbohydrates, which have a higher glycemic index than unprocessed carbs, cause inflammation in our body.

So what is a refined carbohydrate? According to Healthline, refined carbs “have had most of their fiber removed. Fiber promotes fullness, improves blood sugar control and feeds the beneficial bacteria in your gut.” Basically, they’ve been stripped of all their good. WebMD breaks down which carbs are good, and which are bad. Good carbs are plant foods, whole grains, beans, vegetables, and fruits. On the other hand, bad carbs are sugars, “added” sugars, and refined “white” grains like white bread and rice.

Tropical Fruits

This one can be confusing because we’re taught that fruits are good for us, which they most definitely are, but some fruits contain a higher amount of fructose than others, so like many other foods, they should be eaten in moderation. Women’s Health lists fruits like bananas, oranges, mangoes, papayas, and pineapples as fruits that should be eaten only once a week by anyone who is diabetic.

The same source also warns “if your ancestors did not come from hot climates, tropical fruits might be hard for you to digest. Many people eat bananas because their doctors have told them that bananas are a terrific source of potassium. This is true — but it’s also true of many other fruits and vegetables.”

Trans Fats

We’re all pretty well aware now that trans fats are bad for us as since they’ve been consistently linked to risk of coronary artery disease, but what many people might not know is that trans fats are responsible for inflammation. According to a study published in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health, trans fats cause inflammation by damaging the cells that line our blood vessels.

While some trans fats are unavoidable since they sometimes do occur naturally in certain foods, the majority are manmade which is why they are difficult for the body to process and results in inflammation. People are encouraged to read the labels on packaged foods before purchasing them, particularly to look for and avoid any food made with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils.

Refined Grains

This one is a no brainer! Foods like pasta, pizza, cereal, and white bread should not only be eaten in moderation, but avoided as much as possible. This is because when refined grains are consumed, they quickly break down into sugar, which causes inflammation.

Huffington Post referenced a 2010 study which found “that a diet high in refined grains led to a greater concentration of certain inflammation marker in the blood, while a diet high in whole grains resulted in a lower concentration of two different inflammation markers.” Of course, as previously mentioned, white breads are among the worst inflammatory foods because they go against what nature intended them to be. They’ve been processed and stripped of all their nutritional properties, left with only fast-digestion carbohydrates. This goes directly against what our body needs.

Saturated Fats

Just like trans fats are bad for us, saturated fats found in animal fats have been found to cause inflammation in the body. A study in the Scientific American tracked how our healthy gut bacteria changes after we consume saturated fats. This particular study found that “saturated fats, particularly those from dairy, which are also present in many baked goods and processed foods, can change the composition of naturally harmless bacteria communities in the gut.” It goes on to say that this imbalance can trigger an immune response which results in inflammation and tissue damage.

In addition to this, U.S. News reported that animal fats, or any food that is high in this fat (ex. egg yolks, poultry-skin, red meat, whole-milk dairy products) are actually made with a molecule the body uses for inflammation called arachidonic acid.


Even though Agave is advertised as a healthier alternative, Well and Good says it’s still loaded with sugar. “Sugar suppresses the activity of our white blood cells, which makes us more susceptible to infectious disease (colds, the flu, and so forth) as well as cancer,” said Nicholas Perricone, MD, to the health conscious site. Prevention notes that it’s actually 85-percent fructose, which is a type of sugar that can only be broken down by liver cells, as opposed to glucose which can be metabolized by every cell in the body.

It’s never good to eat a lot of sugar, but when fructose is involved it’s even more important to limit our intake. “Fructose in particular puts a strain on the liver, causing the accumulation of tiny fat droplets in your liver cells. This build up, called non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, can eventually cause inflammation that impairs the liver’s functioning,” says Prevention.


Julie Ching is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator in Los Angeles. She decided to become a Dietitian after traveling through Europe, South America, and Asia and discovered a passion for food. She now works with people of all ages and varying disease states to improve their health. She is passionate about teaching people about nutrition so they can live their best life while still considering their cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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