Two dietitians explain why certain foods send your body into overdrive.

By Rebecca Norris
November 05, 2020
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Have you ever paused to consider why your skin keeps breaking out, why your stomach feels perpetually uneasy, or why you simply can't get your heartburn under control? Inflammatory foods may be to blame. While inflammation is a normal part of the immune response, functional nutrition dietitian Brigid Titgemeier explains that perpetual exposure can be worrisome. "When inflammation happens in an uncontrolled or inappropriate manner, it can lead to damage of a person's tissues and the onset of disease," she says, noting that the body does not know the difference between acute and chronic inflammation. "Typically, after an infection or injury, inflammation triggers the immunologic process by activating cells that fight invaders. Immune cells that are involved are macrophages, mast cells, T cells, and B cells, in addition to a number of different chemical mediators like antibodies, cytokines, and histamines."

Credit: Getty / Dougal Waters

For example, immune cells secrete inflammatory mediators at the site of inflammation, which have local and systemic effects, she adds. "The first signs of acute inflammation will be fever, swelling, redness, and stiffness. Typically this process should turn itself off—but in the case of chronic inflammation, the immune system fails to counter regulate itself." And a main perpetuator of this chronic response? An inflammatory diet. Since many people are unaware that their diets could be the cause of their unrelenting pain and discomfort in the first place, we decided to take a deep dive into the science behind inflammatory foods.

The Science Behind Inflammatory Foods

As Sovereign Laboratories registered dietitian Alicia Galvin points out, inflammation is basically an up-regulation or activation of the immune system. "When the immune system gets triggered, it releases chemicals and immune cells to address that trigger. An inflammatory food is anything that causes that cascade," she explains. "It can be any food a person has a sensitivity to—but we also know that foods high in food colorings, additives, unhealthy fats, sugar, artificial sugars, and preservatives also cause inflammation when over-consumed."

Here's the thing: While the word "inflammation" might conjure up images of spicy foods, the reality is that many mild foods can lead to inflammation, too. What's more, Titgemeier says that a single inflammatory food isn't usually the be-all, end-all. Rather, it's an accumulation of inflammatory foods in a person's diet. "Most often, it's a person's dietary patterns that matter the most," she explains. "Eating one bite of sugar paired with a diet rich in vegetables may not be as likely to trigger an inflammatory response. But a diet that is high in refined starches, sugars, and unhealthy fats that is also low in antioxidants and fiber is more likely to trigger an inflammatory response."

The Impact of Inflammation

Ultimately, the impact of food-driven inflammation varies by person. "This is why it can be tricky to identify whether inflammation is a potential root cause and then whether foods are contributing to inflammation," Titgemeier notes. "If inflammation is occurring, the next question is: Is that individual eating foods that are provoking an inflammatory response? Added sugar and refined carbohydrates—when consumed in excess—are inflammatory for everyone, but this is not the case for food allergies or sensitivities that can include gluten, dairy, soy, eggs, and more."

If you can't say for certain whether inflammatory foods are to blame off the bat, analyzing your specific symptoms can be helpful. If you regularly experience unexplained diarrhea, bloating, migraines, sinus congestion, mood swings, eczema, rashes, hair loss, brain fog, acne, fatigue (among other things), says Galvin, you might want to take a closer look at your diet. While these side effects are among the more manageable, Titgemeier admits that, if inflammation goes unregulated, it can lead to an increased risk of developing asthma, allergies, autoimmune diseases (like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis), depression, Crohn's disease, ulcerative colitis, atherosclerosis, acute cardiovascular events, insulin resistance, Alzheimer's disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, obesity, and more.

Culprit Foods

According to Titgemeier, the six most common inflammatory food categories to be aware of are as follows: ultra-processed foods, trans fats, added sugars, refined flours and carbohydrates, and omega 6-rich vegetable oils, as well as allergens and intolerances that vary by person (gluten, dairy, eggs, and soy are the typical culprits). Eat a lot of these? Galvin says the best way to determine if they're the cause of your problems is to eliminate them for a few weeks and then add them back in one at a time, every three days. If there is a change in your symptoms, you'll have a better sense of their role in your diet and life.

Additionally, you can try to counteract inflammation by adding anti-inflammatory foods into your diet while removing those that may be causing harm. "When you are pursuing a balance of lowering inflammation, it's equally important to focus on incorporating anti-inflammatory foods into your diet," explains Titgemeier, who recommends wild salmon for omega 3 fatty acids, kale for magnesium and several antioxidants, citrus fruits for vitamin C, almonds for vitamin E, oysters for large quantities of zinc, brazil nuts for selenium, extra virgin olive oil, dark chocolate (more than 70% cacao), ground flax seeds, turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, basil, garlic, and rosemary.

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