As we get older, our bodies don’t always keep up. Muscles aren’t as strong as they used to be, skin gets looser, and joints aren’t as flexible we’d like them to be. The modern diet, filled with inflammatory foods, doesn’t help much either. As they say: “The body ages much faster than the mind”. Nothing is more true when it comes to your joints. Years of daily wear and tear (and a few injuries) can make your joints ages before their time. This translates to chronic pain, mobility issues, and swelling.
The most common causes of joint pain are inflammatory conditions like osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, gout, and bursitis (1).
What Is Inflammation?
Inflammation, according to Web MD “ is a process by which the body’s white blood cells and substances they produce protect us from infection with foreign organisms, such as bacteria and viruses.”(2) Chronic inflammation occurs when the immune system triggers an inflammatory response when there are no invaders to fight off. This lead the body to attack its own tissues.
Arthritis, an inflammatory condition of the joints, is characterized by:
- Swollen joint that’s sometimes warm to the touch
- Joint pain
- Joint stiffness
- Loss of joint function
Inflammation occurs when white blood cells release chemicals that increase blood flow to the site of infection or injury. This makes the area tender, swollen, and hot. In a healthy body, the extra blood promotes wound healing. However, when inflammation occurs in a healthy joint, cartilage slowly breaks down in response.
Inflammation and Disease
Although inflammation is part of your body’s natural healing system, too much of it isn’t great.
In fact, systemic inflammation is the root cause od many health conditions, including Alzheimer’s, heart attacks, Type 2 diabetes and much, much more. Cytokines and C-reactive protein (CRP) are the two main compounds responsible for all this damage (3).
Other inflammatory diseases include (4):
- Lung issues
- Bone problems
- Heart disease
- Anger disorders
So what causes inflammation, you may ask. Well, lack of sleep, stress, dehydration, smoking, drinking alcohol and gut bacteria imbalance are all contributing factors. But the main cause -and the most easily reversible- is eating an inflammatory diet (5).
Top 13 Inflammatory Foods
Here are the top foods that affect inflammation that you should avoid at all cost. If you have an inflammatory diet, learn how to change it below!
Excessive sugar intake causes tooth decay and increases your risks of obesity, inflammation and chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. Sugar also feed bad bacteria and cancer cells, giving your immune system a hard time. Because it’s excessively acidic, sugar directly causes inflammation too (6).
Find them in: Sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks, fruit drinks and punches. Sweets like pastries, desserts, candies and snacks, and other processed foods are an issue too.
Substitute: Opt for natural sweeteners like maple syrup, agave, honey, or blackstrap molasses. If your sweet tooth bothers you every day, snack on some fresh berries or all-natural dried fruits for fix your craving.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
Processed sugars and sweeteners trigger the release of inflammatory messengers called cytokines. One in particular, corn syrup, causes inflammation of the liver and contributes to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (7).
Find them in: sweets and processed foods. Look out for corn syrup, dextrose, fructose, golden syrup, maltose, sorghum syrup and sucrose.
Substitute: Skip out the artificial stuff and go for all-natural sweets like dates and honey. To keep the calorie count low, opt for stevia instead of Splenda.
3. Common Cooking Oils
Vegetable cooking oils used in many homes and restaurants have very high omega-6 fatty acids and dismally low omega-3 fats. Excess consumption of omega-6s triggers the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals that wreak havoc on your body (8).
Find them in : Polyunsaturated vegetable oils such as grapeseed, cottonseed, safflower, corn and sunflower oils. Plus, they’re present in soy, peanut, and vegetable oils. These oils often appear processed foods, baked goods, fast food, and fried foods.
Substitute: macadamia oil, extra virgin olive oil, or avocado oil. When in doubt, the best oil to cook with is coconut oil.
4. Trans Fats
Trans fatty acids are notorious for their double whammy effect: they increase the levels of ‘bad’ cholesterol while lowering levels of the ‘good’ cholesterol. They also increase inflammatory response. In fact, the Harvard School of Public Health warned about the dangers of trans fat in the early 1990s (9).
Saturated fats aren’t much better: “several studies have shown that saturated fats trigger adipose (fat tissue) inflammation, which is not only an indicator for heart disease but it also worsens arthritis inflammation.” (10)
Find them in: Deep fried foods, fast foods, commercially baked goods and those prepared with partially hydrogenated oil, frozen foods, margarine and/or vegetable shortening.
Substitute: Look for alternative products that contain no trans fats, and that do not have partially hydrogenated oil or vegetable shortening in the ingredients list. When in doubt, assume that all commercially prepared foods contain trans fats unless stated otherwise.
5. Dairy Products
As much as 60% of the world’s population cannot digest milk. In fact, many researchers think that being able to digest milk beyond infancy is abnormal, rather than the other way round. Milk is also a common allergen that can trigger inflammatory responses, such as stomach distress, constipation, diarrhea, skin rashes, acne, hives and breathing difficulties in susceptible people (11).
Plus, hormones, pesticides, and antibiotics fed to cattle make their way into milk too, compounding the problem (12).
Find them in: Apart from obvious milk products like butter and cheese, foods with hidden dairy content include breads, cookies, crackers, cakes, cream sauces, protein powder, and boxed cereals. Milk is an allergen, so it usually explicitly appears on food labels.
Substitute: Replace milk with coconut milk or homemade nut milk. Use coconut oil instead of butter and cashews instead of cheese.
6. Non-Organic Meat
Commercially produced meats are feed with grains like soybeans and corn, a diet that is high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids but low in anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats. They are also loaded with antibiotics and hormones to keep them free from infection and speed up reproduction. Recently, studies have found that chicken meat can cause cancer, too.
Find them in: Unless otherwise stated, most, if not all, beef, pork and poultry you can find in the supermarkets and restaurants come from feedlot farms.
Substitute: Free-range organic meat from animals that are fed a natural diet grass and vegetables.
7. Processed Meat
Processed meat is cured, salted, smoked, or otherwise preserved meat. It typically contains add nitrates, corn products, soy, and preservatives and coloring agents.These ingredients make the food product so toxic that it’s carcinogenic, causing bowel cancer. Now that’s hard to swallow (13)!
Find them in: ham, hotdogs, sausage, lunch meat, bacon, and salami.
Substitute: Eat fresh meat, poultry, and fish or organic alternatives like smoked salmon or beef jerky.
Regular alcohol consumption causes irritation and inflammation of the esophagus, larynx (voice box) and liver. Over time, the chronic inflammation promotes tumor growth and gives rise to cancer at the sites of repeated irritation.
Find them in: Beers, ciders, liquors, liqueurs, and wines.
Substitute: refreshing and thirst-quenching drinks like a glass of pure, filtered water, tea, or fresh-pressed juice.
9. Refined Grains
A lot of the grains we eat nowadays are genetically modified, processed, and contaminated with herbicides and pesticides. Some grains, like wheat, are so refined that they cause severe allergy-like symptoms in most of the population. What’s more, wheat is bleached and stripped of its nutrients, which are added later on in the form of synthetic vitamins and minerals. This is why most white flour is labeled as “enriched” (14).
Plus, like refined sugars, refined grains have a higher glycemic index than unprocessed grains, which can hasten the onset of degenerative diseases like cancer, coronary disease and diabetes (15).
Find them in: white flour, white bread, noodles, pasta, biscuits, and pastries.
Substitute: Go for ancient healthy grains like amaranth, quinoa, spelt, rye, millet, buckwheat, and chia. These are available as whole grains or prepared whole grain flour in most health food stores.
MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a preservative and food additive that enhances flavor in processed foods. It contains fermented starch, corn sugar, molasses, sugar cane or sugar beets (16).
In the body, MSG is used as a neurotransmitter. Because it’s synthetic, the substance causes cytoplasm swelling, nuclei damage and neuron loss in the brain of unborn children (17). In adults, it can cause brain swelling, headaches, and allergy-like symptoms (18). MSG side effects include stomach aches, excessive sweating, trouble sleeping, and more.
In young mice, MSG is known to cause NAFLD (non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and NASH (nonalcoholic steatohepatitis) (19).
Find them in: MSG is very popular in store-bought Asian food as well as food prepared in Asian restaurants. Even “MSG-free” restaurants have been found to use the ingredient.
Substitute: Enhance food with a dash of salt and pepper or give it more flavor with appropriate spices. If you aren’t sure if you favorite Chinese restaurant uses this ingredient, cook Asian food at home.
Ancient corn is a nutritious, healthy grain. The genetically engineered food we find at the grocery store and in processed foods isn’t, though. Corn is one of the most genetically engineered foods, and one of the most prone to pesticide residue. In fact, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now allows fifty times more glyphosate on corn crops than it did in 1996.
By killing off beneficial gut bacteria, glyphosate allows bad bacteria to thrive. This triggers an inflammatory response that can cause achy joints. The herbicide is also responsible for many digestive conditions like inflammatory bowel disease and celiac’s disease. The veggies don’t just affect humans: “Pigs fed GMO corn and soy developed widespread intestinal inflammation that may have been due in part to glyphosate exposure,” wrote one study (20).
Find them in: conventional baked goods, cereals, breakfast bars, processed meat, and sweets (corn syrup).
Substitute: Buy organic corn or replace it with other small vegetables like peas and beans.
12. Refined Salts
Sodium is essential for nerve and muscle function, blood pressure regulation, and more (21). But too much can lead to high blood pressure, kidney problems, low bone density, inflammation, and fluid retention (22). Excess sodium is typically released through sweat and urine.
A study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that “high salt intake is associated with enhanced inflammation and target organ damage.” (23) Unlike unprocessed salt, “table salt” is heated at extreme temperatures and is full of questionable additives.
Find them in: processed foods, fast food, and almost everything served in restaurants
Substitute: replace iodized salt with all-natural unrefined sea salt or Himalayan salt. Instead of using extra salt, use spices and herbs to flavor your meal.
13. Fill in the Blank
Why is this blank? Because it is meant for you to fill in with the food that you are sensitive to. Many people are sensitive to certain foods but are totally unaware of it. Unlike food allergies whereby symptoms usually come fast and furious, symptoms caused by food intolerance may take a longer time to manifest.
Consequently, when symptoms of food intolerance do appear, they are often brushed off as common minor ailments such as tiredness and headaches. But repeated, long-term exposure to food that irritates can cause inflammation and lead to chronic disease.
Find them in: Common food allergens are gluten, milk, nuts, eggs and nightshade vegetables. Contrary to common belief, it is possible to develop an allergy to the foods that you eat often.
Substitute: If you suspect that a particular food may be responsible for your food intolerant response, try avoiding it completely for about two weeks and monitor your reaction. At the end of the abstinence period, re-introduce the food back into your diet. If you are in fact incompatible with it, you should be able to notice the difference in how you feel easily.
Managing Chronic Inflammation
To get inflammation under control, you have to target its root cause. The first step is cutting out foods that promote inflammation and adding in foods that fight inflammation. Start by swapping out canola oil for olive or coconut oil and spicing things up with a little turmeric and anti inflammatory herbs. Focus on unprocessed, whole foods and stay hydrated.
Finally, focus on your health by exercising regularly and lower your stress levels. Most of all, make sure to get 7-9 hours of sleep every day to help your body recover at night and reduce inflammation.