Transitioning to an anti-inflammatory diet can take time.
We always tell our clients that it is easier to add a good habit than remove a bad one.
However, the caveat here is that symptoms may not subside until these inflammation triggers are completely removed. Therefore, avoiding or removing these inflammatory foods from the diet may be necessary.
The first step is to understand what foods can cause inflammation and why. It is also important to understand that the foods that trigger inflammation will vary based on the individual. Keeping a food journal or just becoming aware of symptoms may help you to identify what foods are your biggest triggers.
To help you start, here are our top 10 inflammatory foods to avoid (including some that may surprise you):
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, kamut, barley and rye. Celiac’s disease is a genetic related, auto-immune condition causing a severe intolerance to gluten. However, many are also diagnosed with a non-celiac gluten intolerance. Then there are those with no official diagnosis, but always feel a lot better whenever the remove gluten from the diet. To those I would say; go with your gut.
There is still a lot of research being done around the causes of gluten intolerance. One factor maybe that the wheat crop has drastically changed over the last 100 years. Wheat has been bred to have more protein (i.e. more gluten) making it a more sturdy, hardy crop.
However, this may have also made it more difficult to digest. It could also be the quantity of wheat consumed in a Western diet. Wheat, being a major cash crop, can often be consumed multiple times in a day in the standard North American diet.
Intolerance means the inability to digest a food, whereas an allergy means that an immune response is triggered when the food is consumed.
Regardless of whether it is a gluten allergy or intolerance, the end result of consuming this food is inflammation. It’s important that if you suspect you have an issue with gluten that you get tested for Celiac’s disease, especially if you have a family history. Even if you intend to remove gluten from the diet, the diagnosis is still important.
Those with Celiac’s disease often need to avoid any cross contamination with gluten products. Products labelled as “gluten free” often contain refined starches devoid of any real nutrition. While these can help with your transition, a healthy gluten-free diet includes whole gluten-free grains such as brown rice, quinoa, millet, and oats processed in a gluten-free facility. Beans, legumes, nuts, and seeds can also be made into a variety of flours, pastas and breads. It is the variety of these foods that make up an anti-inflammatory diet.
Similar to gluten, many are finding dairy causes digestive issues. This is often labelled as lactose intolerance. Lactose is the sugar found in milk and an enzyme called lactase is required to break down and digest this sugar. Most mammals do not produce this enzyme past infancy. This is why you shouldn’t give your cat a saucer of milk. They cannot digest it.
Certain humans evolved to produce lactase in adult hood. Now, dairy is a large part of the North American diet, but still not everyone produces lactase past infancy. Lactose-free milk has added enzymes to help with this digestion, but it is often not enough. However, it is not always lactose that causes dairy-related indigestion. The protein casein in milk can also lead to allergies and digestive issues. As with gluten. it is always important to first ensure that you do not have a severe dairy allergy.
A dairy-free diet can include lots of different plant-based milks for variety and flavour including:
It is often easy to tell that gluten and dairy are causing inflammation in the body. This is because most often these issues originate in the digestive tract.
Gas, bloating, fatigue and headaches are common symptoms to dairy and gluten intolerance. However, sugar is a more subtle culprit.
While it may not cause immediate gut inflammation, excess sugar consumption has been linked to an increase in inflammatory cytokines in the body, as well as a production of advanced glyconation end-products, (conveniently referred to as AGES.) AGES can cause damage to brain and advances the ageing process.
Here are a few tips to reducing sugar consumption:
A major component to an anti-inflammatory diet is balancing omega 3 fatty acids with omega 6 fatty acids. Consuming too many omega 6 fats can create an inflammatory environment, particularly if these omega 6 oils have been damaged by heat and light.
Vegetable oils cooked to high temperatures creates an inflammatory chemical called acrylamide. This is not only present in deep fried foods such as French fries and chips, but also any processed food made with these vegetable oils; this includes margarines, crackers and other snack foods. Oils like coconut oil, avocado, and olive oil and even butter are made out of saturated or monounsaturated fats and do not become as easily damaged by heat. It is the polyunsaturated fats that need to be avoided in packaged foods.
Here’s how to avoid these damaged inflammatory oils:
One of the most common and severe allergens, peanuts and peanut butter are still a dietary staple. However, perhaps there is a reason why some react so severely to peanuts.
Peanuts are a legume that easily produce mold. This mold produces a toxin called aflatoxin, which is a known carcinogen. The peanut plant naturally absorbs toxins in the soil. This makes it the perfect crop to plant to clean up the soil however, it is not exactly nutritious. While everyone loves peanut butter, is it the peanuts we love or the sugar, oil and salt added to the peanut butter? Peanuts are actually quite bitter in flavour.
Almonds on the other hand, have a naturally sweet taste, making almonds a perfect substitute to peanut butter with no sugar needed. If you miss the sweetness, add a drizzle of honey.
There are also many other nut and seeds butters far more nutritious than peanuts, including:
Balancing blood sugar is key to an anti-inflammatory diet.
Refined carbohydrates that are digested quickly can cause a spike in blood sugar and therefore a spike in insulin. While insulin is an important hormone needed to regulate metabolism, too much insulin over time results in chronic inflammation.
Therefore, refined flours, even gluten-free, can be considered as inflammation causing foods, and should be avoided unless they are accompanied by other fiber rich flours. When choosing gluten-free bread look for a brand that is made with bean or brown rice flour as the main ingredient. When baking with gluten-free flours, try almond flour, chickpea flour or gluten-free oat flour or brown rice flour.
Refined starches such as potato or tapioca can be used as long as they are mixed with these other fiber rich flours. This slows down the absorption of sugars into the blood stream. Carbohydrates in a meal should always be accompanied with healthy fats, fibre and protein.
Mushrooms are a fungus and while they contain protein and some B vitamins, in general they are an inflammation causing food, and the body considers fungi as an intruder.
Mushrooms particularly trigger inflammation if your body is already fighting off other funguses, such as candida albicans, a yeast that can grow in the digestive tract.
If you do eat mushrooms, ensure to cook them well and do not store them as leftovers in the refrigerator, as they can easily grow mold.
You are what you eat, but you are also what you eat, eats.
If you choose to eat animals and animal by-products, it’s important to also consider what that animal ate. This will determine whether or not that food is inflammatory or anti-inflammatory.
A good example is fish. Wild Alaskan salmon is rich in omega 3 fatty acids with over 2000 mg per serving. Tilapia however, a white fish contains only around 136 mg of omega 3 fatty acid. Moreover, it is rich in omega 6 fatty acids.
An imbalance of omega 6 and 3 fatty acids is one of the main causes of inflammation. Fish will only contain omega 3 fatty acids if it consumed omega 3 rich foods during its life.
However, a farmed tilapia’s diet of corn and soy is devoid of these nutrients. The same is true for land animals. Livestock such as cows and chickens that are not pastured are not able to eat omega 3 rich greens. Therefore, the meat, eggs and milk will not contain any omega 3 fatty acids either.
Anything that enters the body is recognized as one of the four things; a nutrient, water, fiber; or toxin.
Luckily there are systems in place for this. The liver is equipped to process and package toxins for removal. While this is the liver’s job, the liver is not a perpetual motion machine.
Toxins can build up and cause inflammation in the body, particularly if the body also does not have enough nutrients available to achieve these tasks. Reducing your overall toxic load is key to reducing inflammation. This means not only avoiding inflammatory foods like packaged foods with additives, but also considering pesticides, herbicides as well as toxins in the environment such as fragrances, cleaners and cosmetics.
While we cannot avoid toxins completely, reducing your exposure is a large part of the anti-inflammatory lifestyle.
While stress is not a food, its role in inflammation cannot be overlooked. The secretion of cortisol, our stress hormone, creates an inflammatory environment in the body. Reducing stress is not just about yoga and meditation, but also about having a balanced approach to your diet. The goal of an anti-inflammatory diet is to increase the good and reduce the bad. It is not about being perfect all the time. So, an anti-inflammatory diet does mean that you can’t have sweets every once in a while, (although we recommend a home-made dessert made with natural sweeteners).
The common denominator amongst many of these foods is that they were born out of necessity. You may have noticed all of the cash crops on the list. Sturdy plants that would have been in abundance during times when food was scarce. Having shelf-stable foods was very important during the Great Depression when fresh food was not available.
Owning a cow that produced milk meant an endless food source without slaughtering your animal. It’s not about demonizing these foods that got us through hard times, but rather recognizing that times have changed.
The quality of food is not the same and neither are we.
Many of us are fortunate enough now to have a variety of fresh food available to us all year round. It is time that we understand which inflammatory foods to avoid and adapt to consume a diet that will not just keep us alive, but also allow us to thrive.
Certified Nutritionist Kirsten Colella is always creating healthy meals full of anti-oxidants and omega 3s for her family. She shares her delicious recipes, colourful food pics and health-promoting food ideas on our Instagram page @essentialbalanceholistic