3 Critical Foods That Lead to Chronic Inflammation

A bottle of corn oil pouring into a fryer

Inflammation Is a Sign of Injury

We come from a combat sports background where controlling inflammation is a top priority. Even if you aren’t a competitive athlete, it’s still essential not to let inflammation take over your body. Here’s a common scenario: let’s say you trip and twist your ankle. Chances are you’ll experience some pain, followed by redness. Depending on the severity of the sprain, there may be swelling and warmth in that area for a few days or weeks.

Here’s what’s happening in your body:

  1. When your ankle was pushed past its anatomical limits, your immune system was triggered to release compounds called cytokines. These act like a fire alarm, signaling other cells to come and fix the problem.
  2. White blood cells, hormones, and nutrients are delivered by increased blood flow to the injured area, resulting in warmth and redness.

Short-term inflammation, especially after acute injury, is a natural process designed to initiate and support the healing process. But inflammation has a dark side—poor diet, alcohol intake, pollution, smoking, and stress can also trigger your inflammatory response and put your body under constant attack. This is called chronic inflammation

When immune cells are summoned, but have no real problem to solve, they instead begin to attack the body’s own otherwise-healthy tissues and organs. The destruction caused by these cells, referred to as oxidative stress, eventually adds up to disease.

Do the Foods You Eat Produce Inflammation?

Systemic inflammation is significantly influenced by our lifestyle choices, especially diet. Several foods have been linked to increased inflammation levels in the body.  Avoiding or limiting these foods, while adding specific anti-inflammatory foods in your diet, can significantly reduce your risk of diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.

Inflammatory Foods to Avoid

What to Avoid: Trans fats: Also called partially hydrogenated fats, these man-made fats were created to make foods shelf-stable. New food laws are banning trans fats, but they are still found in processed foods. In the future, trans-fats will likely not be a part of our national food supply, but you should remove them from yours now.

The Healthy Steps You Can Take:
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is no longer “generally recognized as safe.” These unhealthy fats will be phased out of the production of food over the next few years. Until then:

  • Avoid processed or packaged foods, including non-dairy coffee creamer and stick margarines.
  • Check the ingredients list on all your foods for the words “partially hydrogenated.”
  • If you have shortening or other processed oils at home, put them in the trash where they belong, then switch to olive oil, coconut oil, or ghee.

What to Avoid: Sugar
Sugar is added to most processed foods these days, and we’re paying the price with our health. A high sugar intake is correlated inflammation, obesity, and diabetes. It works like this:

  1. Simple sugars are rapidly digested by the body, increasing our blood sugar and leading to a quick surge in insulin levels.
  2. Too much insulin and sugar in our blood triggers an increase in inflammation.
  3. When sugar is not immediately used for energy, it is stored as fat for later use.
  4. Excessive body fat also increases oxidative stress and inflammation.

A study of 29 healthy young men found that inflammation markers increased significantly after consuming just one or two servings of sugar-sweetened beverages daily for only three weeks. Heart disease markers also increased, as did fasting blood sugar.

The Healthy Steps You Can Take:
Ideally, it is best to limit your intake of sugar and foods containing refined carbohydrates. This includes, but isn’t limited to: crackers, chips, cookies, ice cream, and sweetened drinks like soda, sports drinks, and fruit juice. Instead, focus on eating unprocessed foods such as vegetables, lean protein, and healthy fats.

What to Avoid: Vegetable Oil
Vegetable oils such as corn or canola oil used to be the recommended fat choices over saturated animal fats. That is, until it was discovered that some vegetable oils, particularly those high in omega-6 fats, are extremely pro-inflammatory.

processed industrial vegetable oil

Here’s what you need to know to understand the difference between omega-3 and omega-6 fats:

  • The polyunsaturated fats, omega-6 and omega-3s, are both used to make eicosanoids, which are specialized fats found in cell membranes.
  • Omega-3 fats are used to make eicosanoids that help lower inflammation
  • Omega-6 fats are used to make eicosanoids that trigger inflammation
  • In your body, omega-6 vegetable oils compete for absorption with the healthier omega-3 fats.
  • The Western diet is traditionally high in omega-6 and low in omega-3, leading to poor absorption of omega-3 and a high level of inflammatory eicosanoid production.

High consumption of omega-6 fats is also linked with increased obesity. This is not ideal for athletes who need to maintain a healthy weight nor for us regular humans.

Over the past thirty years, our nation’s fat consumption has come down. The ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is important, but despite eating less overall fat, we’re eating more omega-6 fats and less omega-3 fats. This imbalance contributes to obesity and inflammation.

The Healthy Steps You Can Take:

  • Eat at least two to three servings of fatty fish per week to increase your omega-3 intake.
  • Limit your consumption of inflammatory vegetable oils such as corn or canola oil.
  • Add flax and chia seeds to your daily diet for a powerful dose of healthy omega-3s.

Here’s a look into how Canola oil is processes

What to Avoid: Gluten (maybe)
Gluten is the primary protein in the wheat plant. It is found in all wheat products and anything containing rye, bran, flour, bulgur, or barley. Gluten helps provide elasticity to foods—it is the thing that makes bread doughy and pancakes fluffy.


Gluten must be completely avoided by people with Celiac disease, as it causes a severe immune reaction when consumed. Many people who do not have Celiac disease may suffer from a gluten sensitivity. This sensitivity can result in symptoms such as headaches, joint pain, rashes, or even anxiety after consuming gluten-containing foods.

Scientists believe that gluten can set off a reaction in the intestines in some people leading to an inflammatory response, even without an official diagnosis of Celiac disease. Gluten consumption has also been indicated as a trigger for autoimmune disease in sensitive individuals, likely related to its generally inflammatory nature.

Not everyone is sensitive to gluten, but if you are experiencing unexplained headaches, joint pain, or digestive issues, you may consider doing a thirty-day trial of a gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms improve.

The Healthy Steps You Can Take:
Eliminating dietary gluten is easier than ever. Try going thirty days without eating any gluten-containing foods and see how you feel. Avoid anything with wheat, rye, or barley, as well as any hybrids or products derived from these grains. Make sure you read your labels. You’ll be surprised at all the places that wheat products hide (like your soy sauce!)

The Anti-inflammatory Lifestyle

Although diet plays a primary role, managing inflammation also requires lifestyle changes. Combat sports training is inflammatory by nature. Pushing your body to the extreme requires extra attention when it comes to food and recovery. Even if you’re not a competitive fighter, chances are the stress levels in your daily life can often feel like a fight.

You may not be able to control certain inflammatory triggers, such as pollution, but you can manage stress, quit smoking, and take time off exercise when need be. Doing all of these things will help reduce your risk of disease.

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