Foods that Cause Inflammation and the Simple, Healthy Swaps
We all know that inflammation is the root of many diseases. Alongside acidity and oxidative stress (my Triple A model), inflammation is perhaps the biggest, preventable cause of sickness and disease. While there are many foods that cause inflammation, the 80/20 that I talk about so much applies here too!
There really are a small number of SUPER problematic foods that cause inflammation – nine, in fact, and by replacing these we can quickly remove the inflammation from our body.
The replacements are all following my “Triple A“:
- Alkaline; and
What exactly is inflammation, and how does it work? Inflammation is the body’s immune response to illness or infection. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, may lead to a variety of health problems, including joint and bone problems, autoimmune conditions, cancer, cardiovascular disease, cognitive decline, digestive issues, and more.
Chronic inflammation has been linked to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes in numerous studies.
Yet it can be so easily reversed and healed using real, whole foods.
We have to stop the inflammation at its source (the foods we consume), and replace those foods with healing, anti-inflammatory, alkaline, antioxidant-rich replacements.
In this guide I’ll show you exactly how, starting with the NINE most problematic foods that cause inflammation.
The Nine Foods that Cause Inflammation
These are the most damaging foods that cause inflammation. Let’s go through them one by one, then get into the swaps.
1. Sugar & High Fructose Corn Syrup
While it may seem counterintuitive, fructose is the problem here.
Most starchy carbs, such as rice, are typically broken down into glucose — the basic form of carbs. Glucose is readily transported and used by every cell in your body. It’s easy to convert and transport. In contrast, fructose must to be converted into glucose, glycogen (stored carbs), or fat by the liver before it can be used as fuel.
This is quite taxing to the liver.
But to be clear, we’re not talking about you eating a handful of blueberries. We’re talking about concentrated fructose, liquid fructose, and added fructose.
Our main sources are from table sugar (sucrose) and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Sugar is 50% glucose and 50% fructose, while high fructose corn syrup is up to 88% fructose.
Note: you can read and download my full guide to sugar, and sugar alternatives here – which are important, such as maple syrup (50% fructose), honey (45-55% fructose), agave syrup (80-90% fructose) can also be problematic even though they’re ‘natural’.
Fructose is an issue when it is in high concentrations. In a bit of fruit, which we eat slowly, and with the fiber of the fruit, there is no issue from an inflammation perspective, as the fructose is processed gradually and gently by the liver.
But when there are added sugars or syrups in huge concentrations, this amount of fructose hitting the liver all at once creates a massive amount of inflammation, acidity (uric acid), and messes with important hormones such as leptin and insulin, and leads to the over-generation of visceral fat cells.
We have to be super careful when it comes to fructose.
For the same reason, we need to be careful with dried fruits (lots of fructose concentrated – very easy to over-eat these), and adding fruit to our green juices. Store-bought fruit juice is obviously out for many reasons, but even with homemade – if your juice had one apple, a handful of grapes, a quarter of a pineapple – you’d quickly get to the same level of fructose as a can of soda (apple 19g, cup of grapes 15g, 1/4 pineapple 17g source).
HFCS is a huge problem. It is added to practically every packaged food in many countries (thankfully not Australia), and you need to be very careful here. It’s high fructose, and very concentrated.
A study done in Boston showed that women who drank more sugar-sweetened beverages were more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis, a chronic inflammatory disorder affecting the joints. Another study published in Nutrition & Diabetes reported likewise increased Risk of arthritis among adults 20-30 years old who consume high fructose corn syrup drinks.
We need to get the sugar out, and it’s a LOT easier than you would think.
2. Gluten-Containing Grains
In the lists of foods that cause inflammation, gluten is often missed. But it really should be right up there with sugar. It pains me that most ‘healthy diet plans’ that you see out there that are saying something like:
2 slices of wholemeal bread with organic jam
1 glass of fresh orange juice
1 cup of fruit yogurt
ARE YOU KIDDING ME? That would contain around 50g of sugar (your absolute recommended maximum for the day) PLUS a ton of gluten…
And I feel I need to keep repeating this, but gluten spikes your blood sugar as much as sugar, which directly leads to an inflammatory response.
When we are looking at foods that cause inflammation, gluten should be up there at the top with sugar, every time.
There are dozens of problems with gluten, but the two primary ways it causes inflammation are:
1. Gluten spikes blood sugar like nothing else.
Wheat, rye, spelt and all of the other gluten-containing grains contain a “super carbohydrate” called amylopectin A – and this carb drives your blood sugar very high, very quickly.
Remember, if you’re on anything like a standard Western diet, 70% of your food consumption either is grain-based – and therefore you’re consuming a LOT of amylopectin A.
Cereal, toast, bagels at breakfast, sandwiches or noodles at lunch, pasta, pizza for dinner…you can see how so many people are getting into trouble with gluten.
And when there is high blood sugar, insulin is released by the pancreas, and the higher the blood sugar the more insulin must be released.
If you trigger high blood sugars repeatedly, the accompanying overproduction of insulin will lead to huge and rapid production of visceral fat accumulating around your abdomen.
And the bigger your belly (i.e. the more visceral fat), the poorer your response to insulin, and the result is that higher and higher insulin levels are demanded, the more inflammation is created and on it goes – creating a vicious cycle, and this is when things start to get really bad.
When visceral fat accumulates, the flood of inflammatory signals it produces causes the body to respond much less effectively to insulin.
This insulin resistance means that the pancreas must produce even more insulin to metabolize high blood sugar.
Eventually, a vicious circle of high blood sugar, increased insulin resistance, increased insulin production, and increased visceral fat, leads to more increased insulin resistance, more visceral fat, more insulin production…and so on…leaving you fat, sick, and chronically fatigued.
When we get into this cycle, starting with the consumption of gluten (and the amylopectin A) that causes high blood sugar, we ultimately lose the ability to access our body’s biggest source of energy – fat.
Remember, fat is our biggest source of energy and high insulin levels remove our ability to burn body fat.
And think – with the Standard Western Diet – most people would be eating wheat or another gluten-containing-grain at practically every meal time – a bowl of cereal or toast at breakfast, a sandwich at lunch, pasta for dinner…that sounds pretty familiar to most people – but this is an absolute disaster for inflammation and again – this just has to change!
2. Gluten Causes Leaky Gut – Which Causes HUGE Inflammation (and Autoimmune)
When we digest gluten it is broken down and zonulin is produced.
Zonulin is a protein that opens up the spaces between cells in the gut wall – and this is actually a good thing, as it allows nutrients to be absorbed into our bloodstream.
However, when there is too much zonulin produced (and this happens when we eat gluten), these spaces between cells become too big and this is called “Leaky Gut”.
And when we have leaky gut inflammation throughout our entire body increases as all sorts of toxins, bacteria and undigested food particles are able to “leak” through these spaces into our bloodstream – where they don’t belong.
The inflammation this causes is MASSIVE.
And it also creates the perfect environment for autoimmune reactions to occur – as these toxins, bacteria and undigested food particles are seen by our immune system as “foreign invaders” and so we create antibodies to them.
These antibodies then attack not only these foreign invaders but also our healthy cells, tissues and organs – leading to all sorts of problems, inflammation and disease.
So we really need to heal our gut and this means removing gluten from our diet.
3. Processed Meat
Processed meats are not only high in toxic, trans fats, but they are also loaded with inflammation-causing additives, colorings, flavorings, and preservatives.
And when we eat these inflammation-causing chemicals it sets off a chain reaction that produces even more inflammation throughout our body.
Processed meat, in particular bacon, ham, and sausage, is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and stomach and colon cancer. Sausage, bacon, ham, smoked meat, and beef jerky are all processed meats.
Processed meat products have high levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs are formed during the cooking process at the high temperatures processed meats require, and they are hugely pro-inflammatory.
4. Artificial Trans Fats
Artificial trans fats, which are created by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fats to make them more solid, are probably the least healthy type of fat you can consume.
They are found in margarine, shortening, and any oils that have been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated and are often hidden on labels by calling them ‘partially hydrogenated’.
Trans fats are manufactured by adding hydrogen to liquid oils, a process that also generates free radicals that provoke inflammation.
According to studies, trans fats can cause heart disease, inflammation, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes.
They also lower HDL (good) cholesterol, and with (still) a huge lack of understanding of cholesterol in the mainstream, products such as margarine have been able to promote themselves as heart healthy, because they lower cholesterol. But all they are really doing is lowering the GOOD cholesterol that you NEED!
And not only do they lower beneficial HDL cholesterol, but trans fats may also impair the function of the endothelial cells lining your arteries, which is a massive risk factor for heart disease.
Consuming artificial trans fats is linked to high levels of inflammatory markers, such as C-reactive protein (CRP). In one study, CRP levels were 78% higher among women who reported the highest trans fat intake.
French fries and other fried fast food, some varieties of microwave popcorn, margarine and vegetable shortenings, packaged cakes and cookies, certain pastries, and all processed foods that list partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the label are high in trans fats.
5. Vegetable & Seed Oils (and an Excess of Omega 6 Oils)
In addition to trans fats, heavily processed or refined vegetable oils should be minimized or avoided.
These oils are high in omega-6, and while we actually need a small amount of omega-6, consuming too much can be hugely pro-inflammatory, when it is in relation to omega-3.
There isn’t absolute agreement on the correct ratio of omega 3 to omega 6, but many experts agree is should be somewhere around 3:1 or 4:1 omega 3 to omega 6 (i.e. 3-4x more omega 3). However, studies show that the average standard western diet leads most people to have a ratio of 1:20.
This is incredibly inflammatory and needs to be addressed.
PLUS most people’s omega 6 intake is coming from rancid, toxic vegetable and seed oils such as sunflower and canola.
Your small amount of omega 6 should come from organic, extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil, and it should be accompanied by an abundance of omega 3!
We’ll get into the ‘how’ below. But similar to sugar, gluten, and trans fats – the bulk of the omega-6 in our diets is usually coming from packaged, processed foods.
6. Artificial Colors & Sweeteners
Research has shown that some artificial food colorings and preservatives can increase inflammation.
These include: butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), tert-butyl hydroquinone (TBHQ), sodium benzoate, food dyes such as Yellow 5 and Yellow 6, and artificial sweeteners such as aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin.
These additives are commonly found in cereals, sports drinks, chewing gum, gelatin desserts, jams, processed meats, baked goods, and fast food.
Aspartame has been shown to increase inflammation markers such as CRP and cytokines. And a study in rats showed that aspartame consumption increased inflammation in the brain.
7. Refined Carbohydrates
While complex carbs such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains provide plenty of fiber and nutrients, refined carbs cause inflammation.
This is because they have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients during processing, which makes them much higher on the glycemic index.
High glycemic foods cause spikes in blood sugar levels, which can lead to inflammation.
A study showed that older adults who consumed high-glycemic foods were more likely to die from an inflammatory disease, such as COPD. And another study showed that young, healthy men who consumed 50 grams of refined carbs experienced higher blood sugar levels and increases in inflammation.
These refined carbs are found in bread, pasta, pastries, some cereals, cookies, cakes, sugary soft drinks, and all processed foods that contain added sugar or flour.
8. Excessive Alcohol Consumption
Drinking too much alcohol can lead to inflammation. This is a no-brainer. I probably didn’t need to tell you this, but it doesn’t hurt to have a reminder. Save alcohol for special occasions and moments, not just a random wine on a Tuesday.
Studies show that drinking large amounts of alcohol regularly can increase certain inflammatory markers, including CRP, which is hardly surprising given the tax it puts on the liver.
What’s more, alcohol intake can also ramp up the risk of leaky gut syndrome, a condition in which toxins and food particles leak from the digestive tract into the blood, causing widespread inflammation.
9. Lack of Sleep
Sleep is crucial for overall health, and not getting enough sleep can lead to inflammation.
Studies show that people who don’t get enough sleep have higher levels of inflammation markers such as CRP.
One study showed that people who slept less than six hours per night had a four-fold increased risk of having a high CRP level.
Sleep is also essential for gut health. One study showed that people who slept less than six hours per night were more likely to have inflammation of the gut lining.
Several studies have shown a relationship between sleep and all-cause mortality and less than adequate sleep has been highlighted as a risk factor for cancer and heart disease!
Out with the Bad and In With the Good!
In the way I coach, there always has to be a double approach: taking OUT the stuff that causes inflammation, acidity, and oxidative stress…and putting IN the stuff that will support your body to heal and repair, and ultimately thrive.
So in addition to reducing or removing the foods that cause inflammation above, we should also look to add in those alkaline, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant-rich foods too!
And I LOVE to do this with swaps. With foods that are easy, convenient, or a part of our routine (like refined carbs, sugar, gluten, etc often are), it’s not enough to just take them out. We will then have a gap in the diet, or routine!
We need to find easy, convenient replacements. And that’s where the next part of this guide will help.
Easy Anti-Inflammatory Food Swaps
1. Healthy Alkaline Snacks (Replacing Sugar & HFCS)
As I’ve said many times, one of the key pressure points for people in sticking with the alkaline diet or any other health plan or lifestyle is what happens when you get hungry.
Your Success Is Often Defined By Your Response to Stress
When you’re hungry, you HAVE to eat, and if you leave it long enough – nothing will stop you. You willpower is determined by the stability of the glucose levels in your brain – and when you either don’t eat or eat sugar, gluten and processed foods – the brain glucose levels become very unstable. In other words – the longer you leave yourself hungry – the less willpower you have…and the more sugar and junk you eat…the less willpower you have (I have a new guide on willpower coming VERY soon too, by the way).
I am sure this is resonating with you – when you get hungry your standards of healthy eating drop, and the more hungry you get.
And if you’re not well prepared and well stocked up with healthy, alkaline snacks……you could end up eating anything!
PLUS most packaged snacks are full of sugar, HFCS, gluten, artificial colors and flavors, trans fats, refined carbs…
SO you need great, healthy, anti-inflammatory alternatives – which I have for you in abundance in these guides here:
Plus for an anti-inflammatory hit try my Anti-Inflammatory Bliss Balls
2. ‘Safer’ Sugars (Replacing Sugar & Artificial Sweeteners)
You need to try and get the fructose out – which includes:
- Table Sugar
- Maple Syrup
- Agave Syrup
- Raw Sugar
The best possible sugars are those that don’t contain fructose, which really leaves us with, stevia (for when you need to add sugar), and rice malt syrup (for when you need to add syrup).
Don’t get me wrong – these are not alkaline and awesome, and they will still cause a little inflammation but they are MILES better than those above that are rich in concentrated fructose.
3. Healthy Fats (Replacing Artificial Trans Fats & Vegetable/Seed Oils)
There are good fats and bad fats. We know this. I just really wish the bad fats were called something else because they give fat a bad name!
We NEED fat. Fat is an essential nutrient. It is massively anti-inflammatory, it supports brain health, and cardiovascular health, it’s alkaline, supports the digestive system, is essential in the regulation and synthesis of many hormones, it’s important for metabolism…and so much more!
But because of the damage caused by BAD fat (and sugar, fat gets blamed for almost all of sugar’s damage).
So we know we need to cut cheap vegetable and seed oils, margarine, trans fats, hydrogenated fats, and excessive omega 6. So what do we need to add?
- Omega-3: from leafy greens, chia seeds, walnuts, flax, hemp, oily fish, and more…
- Saturated Fats: primarily from coconut
Don’t fear these fats! Fat does not make you fat. It doesn’t just stick to your body. Toxic foods make you fat, inflamed, stressed. Bad fats are toxic, inflammatory, and acid-forming. Good fats are alkaline, anti-inflammatory and so good for you!
Here are my guides to help:
4. Delicious Hydration (Replacing Soda & Soft Drinks)
To be hydrated, you don’t just have to drink a ton of plain old water. While you are aiming, ideally, for 100-120oz per day (3-4 litres), it doesn’t just have to be water.
Herbal tea, chilled herbal tea, lemon water, ginger water, putting cucumber in your water, coconut water…there are so many options.
In fact, from an inflammation perspective, the very best thing you can do is add turmeric to your daily diet, as it is possibly THE most anti-inflammatory food on Earth. Here are three ways:
5. Simple Gluten Swaps (Replacing Gluten-Containing Grains)
As I mentioned, gluten is one of the foods that cause inflammation almost more than any other. But, getting the gluten out can be SO simple.
The three main ways gluten gets into our diet are:
If we find swaps for these three occasions we will have removed 80% or more of the gluten with just 20% or less of the effort (that 80/20 rule again).
So here we go:
Bread: go for sprouted-grain bread (even sprouted wheat or rye contains no gluten), or simply get a gluten-free bread or wrap. Be careful with ‘gluten-free’ packaged foods however, find a trusted brand that has very few ingredients. The big food brands that have gotten into ‘gluten-free’ tend to make products that are more inflammatory than the original gluten product!You can also try lettuce wraps, my flatbreads here, or my Ultimate GF Loaf here.
Pasta: it is quite easy to find gluten-free pasta that has just 2-3 ingredients, and these are fine in moderation, but the best option is to make zoodles. These are noodles made from zucchini (courgette) or you can even use carrots, parsnip, beets, or any other firm vegetable.
Cereals: This is even easier – either use gluten-free grain cereals or simply cook oats! Oats are actually naturally gluten-free, they just often don’t advertise it as they are often processed in facilities that process gluten, so there may be traces. You can easily find certified GF oats. Or you can make porridge using quinoa, buckwheat, chia, or any combination of those.
6. Complex Carbohydrates (Replacing Refined Carbohydrates)
Limiting sugar and gluten will mean you’re limiting the vast majority of refined carbs. But you need to replace these with delicious, nutrient-dense complex carbs from fresh veggies and salads.
All of the most alkaline foods are also powerfully anti-inflammatory, and getting an abundance of spinach, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, zucchini, bell pepper, avocado, beets, carrots and more will fill you with nutrients, fiber, antioxidants, and alkalinity.
The gluten swaps above will be a big help, but just remember to load up your plate with veggies and you’ll find a HUGE difference in your energy, and the inflammation will be in the past.
And a note on sleep…
Sleep is not a food, but it can cause inflammation. I am by no means a sleep ‘expert’, but I have researched it a lot due to my own battles to get good quality sleep while having three kids! The battle is ongoing (ha!) but what I have found helps hugely (alongside the usual about not having caffeine after midday, no blue lights after 8 pm, etc) is:
- Upon waking get straight outside and do even just 30 seconds of waking up exercises such as jump rope, rebounding, walking, and even just jogging on the spot.
- No caffeine or other stimulants for the first 30 minutes – allow your body to find it’s daily set point without stimulants.
- Supplement with at least 1g of EPA (one of the omega-3 fats in fish oil) each day – my recommendation for Omega-3 supplementation
- Take a magnesium threonate supplement sometime later in the day before bed. The threonate form of magnesium is able to pass the blood-brain barrier and provide these cognitive, relaxing, benefits.
And that’s a wrap!
Those are the foods that cause inflammation, the foods to swap and how to make it happen!
As ever, I suggest you start small with one thing. Pick one food to eliminate and swap, and work on that one alone until it is mastered and becomes a habit (i.e. you do it without thinking). Then move on to the next.
Overwhelm is the biggest hurdle for most people, so keep it simple.
So…lets do this!