Six Sneaky Foods That Fuel Inflammation

Your super-healthy smoothies, salads and gluten-free goodies may be fanning your internal flames; six surprising foods that make inflammation worse.


1. Your agave-sweetened smoothie. This white-sugar swap and vegan alternative to honey may not be as sweet as it seems. As a highly concentrated sugar, agave shares the same inflammation-provoking hazards as white sugar. No matter the form, sugar boosts blood glucose levels and prompts the liver to produce free fatty acids that can lead to inflammatory processes. Worse, agave is super-refined and about 90 percent fructose, a simple sugar that may have a greater impact on inflammation than other types of sugar; other studies link high fructose consumption with inflammation of endothelial cells lining blood vessels, a significant risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Ease up on the agave—and sugar in general—and get your sweetening power from monk fruit and stevia.


2. Your “healthy” lunch salad. You’ve swapped your fast-food mid-day meal for a giant antioxidant-rich salad—but if you’re drenching your veggies in store-bought vinaigrette or ranch, you’re significantly lessening their benefits. Most bottled dressings are made with soybean or cottonseed oil, and even healthy versions use safflower, sunflower and other vegetable oils high in omega-6 fatty acids. You need some omega-6 fats, but in the right ratio with omega-3 fats. Research shows the typical Western diet is deficient in omega-3s, with excessive amounts of omega-6s—an imbalance linked with inflammation and a higher risk of heart disease, cancer and other diseases. And if you’re opting for low-fat dressing: most are loaded with sugar and salt, with hydrogenated fats, stabilizers and other artificial additives. (Plus, you need  fat to absorb some of the nutrients in your super-healthy salad.) Instead of bottled ranch or vinaigrette, drench your greens in a clean, simple DIY dressing. Or look for store-bought varieties made with anti-inflammatory olive oil or avocado oil.


3. Your veggie burgers and brats. Cutting down on meat? Yay for you. Grain-fed, commercially raised beef and chicken, and processed meats like bacon and salami, trigger inflammation and increase the risk of cancer. But if you’re swapping burgers, sausage and chicken nuggets for vegan options, you may be unknowingly fanning the flames. Some use seitan for its firm, meaty texture—but seitan is made from wheat gluten, linked with inflammation. Others contain soy protein, a common food allergen than can prompt an inflammatory response. And ersatz burgers and brats in general are highly processed and may contain other inflammatory ingredients like omega-6 oils, additives and preservatives. If you’re following a vegan diet or cutting down on meat, look for burger subs based on beans, vegetables, nuts and seeds; for the cleanest option, make your own. And use meat substitutes as an occasional treat, not daily fare; get the bulk of your protein from whole, unprocessed foods like beans, lentils, nuts and seeds.


4. Your boozy libations. That innocent craft beer or happy hour margarita may be doing a number on your body’s inflammatory responses. Alcohol in general fuels inflammation, even in moderate amounts. What’s more, regular drinking disrupts gut bacteria, driving inflammation; over time, disturbances in the gut’s ecosystem can promote the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other diseases. Many varieties, like beer, wine coolers and hard cider, contain gluten, and sweet cocktails are high in inflammation-provoking sugar. New guidelines recommend limiting alcohol consumption to one drink per day, for both men and women. If you do drink, avoid beer if you’re gluten-sensitive, minimize sweet cocktails and hard liquor, and stick to red wine: it’s rich in resveratrol, and some research suggests red wine in moderation is less likely to prompt inflammation. Better yet, swap spirits for antioxidant-heavy mocktails.


5. Your Netflix-plus-popcorn habit. As healthy snacks go, popcorn is high in fiber and polyphenols, low in calories. But those microwavable bags are usually lined with perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a toxic chemical that triggers inflammation and is linked with liver disease, hormonal disruptions and an increased risk of cancer. Most varieties also contain trans fats, artificial flavors and colors, preservatives and other inflammation-promoting additives. (And, btw, a couch-potato lifestyle encourages inflammation and boosts the risk of many chronic diseases.) Don’t give up popcorn; make your own, with organic corn kernels popped in coconut or avocado oil; instead of salt, butter or margarine, toss it with anti-inflammatory olive oil, garlic powder and dried herbs. If you’re hooked on the ease of microwavable bags, look for natural brands in PFOA-free bags, free from hydrogenated oils and other toxins. And make your Netflix habit less sedentary; intersperse your couch time with sit-ups, squats, lunges or jumping jacks.


6. Your grab-and-go gluten-free breakfast. Those convenient wheat-free breakfast treats may be amping up your body’s levels of inflammation. Gluten-free muffins, bagels, pastries, cookies and other commercially made baked goods often use partially hydrogenated vegetable shortening instead of butter (especially if they’re labeled “vegan”). The problem: those butter-subs are high in trans fats, shown to increase C-reactive protein (CRP) and other inflammatory markers, and significantly boost inflammation. Plus, they’re usually high in sugar and inflammation-provoking ingredients. And wheat-free though they may be, any baked goods made with ultra-processed, refined grains are quickly metabolized, spike blood sugar and increase inflammatory markers. If you’re buying gluten-free goodies, check the ingredients list; avoid hydrogenated fats, soy ingredients, processed vegetable oils and super-high sugar grams. For the cleanest version: whip up a big batch of gluten-free muffins, and freeze in individual bags for an easy, on-the-go wheat-free breakfast.