Medically reviewed on November 22, 2022 by Amy Harris, MS, RN, CNM. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.
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Fatigue, fever, or just general aches and pains: These can all be signs of inflammation in the body. While inflammation serves an important purpose—protecting you from injury and illness—it can become a problem when your body’s inflammatory response gets out of control .
And sometimes, the foods we eat are a hidden cause of inflammation.
Foods that cause inflammation include many of our highly-processed favorites: sugar, refined carbs, alcohol, processed meats, and trans fats. But why are these specific types of foods such experts at triggering inflammation in the body?
In this guide, we’ll explore what exactly inflammation means, why certain foods can have an inflammatory effect, and what you can do to protect yourself to support balance in your body.
The foods we eat can be a hidden cause of ongoing low-grade inflammation. Foods that trigger the inflammatory response can cause symptoms like pain, swelling, joint stiffness, and fatigue—and yet many people may not make the connection between their symptoms and their diet.
In general, highly processed foods are thought to be the most connected to inflammation. Let’s take a closer look at 5 of the most common culprits found on our plates.
Foods such as white bread, pasta, and pastries are made with refined flour, which has been stripped of its fiber and nutrients. Refined flour is metabolized much more quickly than unrefined carbohydrates, which can cause blood sugar spikes that lead to inflammation .
Refined carbohydrates encompass familiar foods like:
Too much sugar can promote inflammation by damaging the body's cells as it’s metabolized . Added sugar can also promote the overgrowth of harmful bacteria in the gut, causing inflammation in the intestines .
High fructose corn syrup is especially problematic because it delivers an extra-concentrated dose of fructose even in small amounts (that’s why it’s effective as a cheap and potent sweetener).
Trans fats are found in processed food, meat, and dairy. However, the trans fats in meat and dairy are naturally occurring, whereas trans fats in processed food are usually artificially created.
It’s the artificially created trans fats that are most harmful to your health. When you spot “partially hydrogenated oil” listed on a label, it’s best to put it back on the shelf. These harmful fats can :
Does alcohol cause inflammation? Yes, it does. Alcohol is a toxin, so it’s no surprise that it causes irritation, damage, and inflammation as it passes through your body.
Alcohol consumption can :
Meats that have been preserved through smoking, curing, or salting are high in inflammatory compounds called nitrites. They can also cause inflammation due to their high levels of saturated fat, which accumulate in the body .
Some examples of processed and cured meats include:
Since the term “inflammation” has grown in popularity, it’s important to understand precisely what inflammation is.
Inflammation is your body’s natural reaction to something potentially harmful, like an injury or infection. When your body detects a possible threat, it sends inflammatory cells, and a related substance called cytokines to the site of the problem .
As the inflammatory cells and cytokines go to work, they cause the familiar symptoms of inflammation :
Inflammation can serve a useful purpose by helping to kill bacteria and other invaders, or protecting damaged tissues while they heal . But in some cases, this inflammatory process can go awry. Instead, your immune system can target your body’s own tissues, react to triggers that aren’t harmful, or fail to stop inflammation after the threat has receded .
Inflammatory response is a normal part of your immune system’s defense system. However, many people’s immune systems can be overly sensitive, reacting to harmless triggers as if they were an injury or an invader. This means your inflammatory response can be activated by causes other than injury or infection .
Some of the other triggers that can set off inflammation include allergens , psychological stress, and (you guessed it) certain foods .
Inflammation may be brought on for several reasons, such as :
But whatever the cause of the inflammation, it falls into one of two categories: acute inflammation or chronic inflammation.
When inflammation happens for a short period of time in response to a specific cause, it’s known as acute inflammation .
You’re already familiar with the signs of acute inflammation—think of the redness and swelling around a splinter or a cut, or the fever as your body fights off a virus. Acute inflammation usually subsides within hours or days as your body works through the healing process.
When acute inflammation recurs frequently, or lasts for long periods, it can eventually become chronic inflammation.
The signs of chronic inflammation can be harder to detect and identify than the signs of acute inflammation. However, a few signs to watch for can include :
If inflammation is a part of your body’s natural healing process, why do you need to worry about it?
For one thing, inflammatory cells don’t always attack the right target, and sometimes your own tissues and cells can come under fire. For example, rheumatoid arthritis is the result of the inflammatory response attacking and damaging the body’s own joint tissues .
There are other risks associated with inflammation, particularly if it continues for too long and becomes chronic. Over time, chronic inflammation can contribute to many disorders and diseases, including :
Clearly, it’s important to protect your health by eliminating excess inflammation whenever you can. And because inflammation requires a lot of your body’s energy supply, reducing inflammation can also help improve your overall health, energy, and vitality .
Methods for combating inflammation can come down to why it’s been triggered in the first place. In some cases, an overhaul of your wellness routine or diet may be in order. In others, some simple lifestyle adjustments can help lighten the load on your body.
These measures may be helpful no matter what type of inflammation you’re experiencing:
Chronic inflammation caused by diet can lead to a number of serious health concerns, from heart disease to autoimmune disorders. But foodies need not despair: Opting for low-inflammatory foods and watching for inflammation warning signs can be a vital first step in averting long-term health concerns.
One of the best steps you can take to uncover the warning signs of inflammation is an at-home test from Everlywell. Our Vitamin D & Inflammation Test is a simple way to screen for the hs-CRP inflammation marker in your body. With at-home sample collection, easy, pre-paid shipping, and CLIA-certified lab results, Everlywell tests equip you with the knowledge you need to take charge of your health—no extra steps necessary.