The Top 10 Most Inflammatory Foods in the American Diet

The Top 10 Most Inflammatory Foods in the American Diet

The word “inflammation” has become increasingly popular in the last few years because integrative medicine has discovered what we eat has the power to change the levels of inflammation in our body. Inflammation has been connected with serious health issues including depression, allergies, muscle and joint pain, eczema, IBS, arthritis, reflux, headaches and heart disease. I’m living proof that removing these top inflammatory foods and adopting an anti-inflammatory diet, consisting of whole, unprocessed, organic foods free of chemicals and preservatives, can change your life.

The Top 10 Most Inflammatory Foods in the American Diet

To remove inflammation from our bodies, it’s important to eat an anti-inflammatory diet filled with whole, organic foods to help your body detox, balance blood sugar, maximize digestion and regulate the body’s overall system. When your body isn’t under stress from eating these toxic foods, you’ll have more energy and you’ll look more vibrant because you’ll be eating foods rich in nutrients. The focus is to eat one-ingredient foods such as avocados, nuts, seeds, vegetables, fruits, whole grains, organic animal products such as chicken, turkey, eggs, etc.

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet largely consists of processed food-like substances such as refined sugar, flour, additives, MSG, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial sweeteners, and junk food. These man-made foods are toxic to our body and inflames our cells and our gut, which can lead to chronic inflammation.

Now, even though processed, packaged foods are on the list below, not all packaged foods are processed and inflammatory; there are plenty of foods such as gluten-free whole grains, hummus, almond butter, frozen fruits and veggies, as well as raw nuts and seeds that are sold in packages, but that does not make them bad for you. What makes a certain food sold in a package healthy? The ingredient list! If the food being sold in the package is a whole food (such as quinoa) without additives on the ingredient list, you’re most likely safe in thinking that it’s a healthy choice. It’s important to read the labels on products to make sure the product is only made from whole ingredients that you can pronounce. For instance, a jar of tomato sauce should have a list of ingredients that are whole foods such as tomatoes, salt, pepper and olive oil. Make a plan to stock your kitchen with nourishing, whole foods and leave the processed foods on the store shelves.

I have seen life-changing benefits by removing these foods from my lifestyle after suffering from a decade of chronic inflammation and illness. Western medicine doctors wrote me countless prescriptions for drugs to put a Band-Aid over my health issues for more than ten years and never mentioned anything about using food to help fight inflammation. After I detoxed my kitchen and started eating clean, I felt amazing and my health issues were resolved.

Here are a few healthy substitutions that you can use when removing inflammatory foods: honey and pure maple syrup, organic produce, organic poultry, omega 3 enriched organic eggs, sea salt, extra-virgin olive oil, flax oil, walnut oil, coconut oil, fresh herbs, raw nuts such as almonds and walnuts and seeds such as chia/hemp/ground flaxseeds, nut butters, gluten-free grains such as gluten-free oats, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, teff, sorghum and amaranth. Start making these spring swaps in your pantry today:

1. Gluten – Found in: soy sauce, wheat, bread, cookies, cakes, cupcakes, cereals, oats, rye, pasta, breadcrumbs, spelt, kamut, semolina, certain medications, certain personal care products such as makeup, toothpaste, sunscreen and lotions. Many restaurants use gluten in sneaky places such as soy sauce, meatballs, miso, stock, soba noodles, tamari and many seasonings. If you already eat gluten-free and you’re purchasing processed gluten-free foods such as cookies, they’re probably loaded with refined sugars and refined salt, two other causes of inflammation.

Swap with: Try gluten-free bread or use leafy greens such as kale and collard green leaves to wrap your sandwiches. Look for brands made from whole gluten-free grains such as Udis’s Gluten Free Millet-Chia Bread (made with millet, chia and flax) that contains a hearty mix of whole grains, nutrients and vitamins. Instead of wheat pasta, try pasta made from quinoa or beans. Serve just as you would regular pasta with homemade tomato sauce and fresh basil! Add a handful of raw walnuts for an extra anti-inflammatory omega-3 boost. Also check out Nature’s Path line of Qi’a Superfoods Hot Oatmeal that’s loaded with protein and made with super seeds, gluten-free grains and amazing flavor without processed ingredients!

2. Dairy – Found in: cow’s milk, goat’s milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter, cookies, cakes, desserts. Conventional (non-organic) dairy is filled with antibiotics, growth hormones and many other scary ingredients that aren’t on the labels! Dairy is known to cause mucus and inflammation in many people and can also lead to acne and GI (stomach) issues such as IBS, bloating, diarrhea and constipation.

Swap with: Look for nondairy products from So Delicious, a brand that carries numerous dairy-free and soy-free milks. Instead of butter, margarine or shortening, use coconut oil in your baking recipes, spread onto your toast and used for cooking on the stovetop! Try Barlean’s Organic Virgin Coconut Oil, which is not refined and is made from pure coconuts with no fillers or additives.

3. Alcohol – Found in: beer, cocktails and hard liquor. Beer is made with gluten and many alcohol products have traces of gluten, therefore it’s best to avoid it. Many other alcohol products can also contain refined sugar and chemical dyes.

Swap with: Sparkling water and fresh lemon slices, herbal teas and fresh juices.

4. Caffeine – Found in: soda, coffee, energy drinks. Caffeine can affect our adrenals and cortisol levels, which in turn affects our weight and overall health, because if we have high cortisol levels, our body thinks we’re in fight or flight (inflammatory) mode instead of being in a relaxed, calm state. Therefore, our bodies can’t always properly perform the necessary tasks it needs to, such as digestion, sleep, energy production, hormone regulation, appetite, etc. Caffeine is also addictive and increases hunger, so we can end up consuming more coffee or sugary soda.

Swap with: Try seltzer with fresh lemon and cucumber slices. And instead of reaching for your caffeinated coffee in the morning, try herbal tea with fresh lemon slices. Klio Greek Mountain Tea is a great option. It’s organic, naturally caffeine-free and rich in antioxidants, polyphenols and other phyto-nutrients and is known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

5. Hydrogenated fat (aka trans fats) and highly refined cooking oils – Found in: Peanut, cottonseed, soy and corn oils as well as margarine, shortening, white bread, non-dairy coffee creamers, peanut butter, fast food and ice cream. Trans fats are easy to find, look for ‘partially hydrogenated’ on the ingredient label for foods such as snack foods, doughs, pies, cookies and crackers and don’t fall for the ‘No Trans Fat’ label on packages because it can still contain trans fats! If you dine at restaurants, chances are the restaurant is using inflammation-causing canola oil to prepare your food (which is also likely full of GMOs).

Swap with: Try healthy oils such as extra-virgin olive oil, flax oil, coconut oil and avocado oil.

6. Fried foods – Found in: anything fried such as French fries, chicken, pastries. These foods are unhealthy for everyone. They’re fried in unhealthy oils (see above) and they do nothing but cause inflammation, acid reflux and other inflammatory issues in our bodies.

Swap with: Try roasting foods in coconut oil or olive oil. For example, cut sweet potatoes, zucchini and carrots into chips or stick shapes, toss them with olive oil, sea salt and pepper and roast in a 425 F oven for about 30 minutes for a healthy un-fried snack.

7. Refined sugar – Found in: Refined sugar is found in white sugar, brown sugar, ketchup, BBQ sauce, nutrition bars, cereals, flavored yogurt, fruit juice, candy, vitamin drinks, cookies. Just take a look inside your fridge and you’ll see sugar in the ingredients list on almost every condiment! Now, if you’re thinking you’ll remove sugar and eat sugar-free foods instead, you’ll be setting yourself up for an inflammatory fire because artificial sweeteners are loaded with chemicals your body cannot identify.

Swap with: Use pure maple syrup or raw honey.

8. Artificial sweeteners – Found in: aspartame, NutraSweet, Splenda, sucralose and any other sugar alcohols ending with ‘ol’ (such as sorbitol, mannitol and malitol). Our bodies cannot recognize these artificial sweeteners, causing inflammation and other health issues in our bodies. Plus, many of these products cause GI (stomach) trouble such as bloating and diarrhea.

Swap with: Use fresh lemon or orange zest for flavor or try maple syrup, as mentioned above from NOW foods.

9. Processed, packaged foods – Found in: White flour, MSG, cup of noodles, frozen meals (such as pizza, ice cream, flavored cream cheese, etc.). These are loaded with refined sugar, refined salt and many other additives to increase the shelf life.

Swap with: Try snacking on raw nuts and seeds or make your own roasted nuts and seeds in the oven with coconut oil, sea salt and ground cinnamon. You can also replace your white flour with nutrient-dense almond or coconut flour. Many brands make mayonnaise heavily processed, therefore, try using protein-rich hummus or guacamole on your sandwiches. Instead of unhealthy packaged salads that are tossed with chemical-laden dressings and conventional salad greens, try pre-washed organic salad blends, powermeal bowls or new salad kits that are sold in pre-washed containers that are easy for serving. You can create an easy meal to any salad blends by adding a piece of organic chicken, a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, anti-inflammatory ground flax seeds, sea salt and pepper.

10. Refined salt – Found in: Table salt and processed, packaged foods. Refined salt such as table salt contains additives and chemicals to make it free-flowing. Refined salt shows up in packaged foods as salt, therefore unless you see sea salt or Himalayan salt on the label, you’re eating refined salt. Refined salt also lacks trace minerals (unlike sea salt) and these minerals such as magnesium and potassium are vital to our health to balance our body’s fluid balance.

Swap with: Use sea salt or Himalayan mineral salt.

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Grocery shopping image via Shutterstock 

Amie Valpone, HHC, AADP, is a Functional Medicine Nutrition Expert, the founder of and best-selling author of Eating... More about Amie Valpone