When you think about inflammation, you probably think of aches or pains. You might also think of heat, or a flame - two visuals that are often associated with inflammation. But what is inflammation, really? And more importantly how does food cause inflammation in your body? 

It’s important to understand inflammation, but it’s even more important to understand what you can do to stop or decrease inflammation if it starts. And food has a lot to do with it! 

I’m going to give you a brief rundown on chronic inflammation so you can easily do more to control it. In this article, I’m going to cover:

  • What is inflammation?
  • How is inflammation measured when you go to the doctor?
  • How can the foods you eat trigger inflammation?
  • What are the foods you should eat to control inflammation?

How Does Food Cause Inflammation In Your Body

Believe it or not, inflammation is not an entirely bad thing. If you never developed inflammation, paper cuts would never heal and ear infections would never go away. Inflammation sweeps in, acting as your body’s de facto first aid system, helping you feel better. This type of response refers to acute inflammation. In the world of inflammatory responses, you want this to happen. 

Sometimes, though, inflammation gets out of control and lingers for too long. Achy joints ache for months or years. Infections that used to happen once in a blue moon are happening all the time. Chronic conditions that require medications begin getting prescribed to help you feel better and, well, reduce inflammation. What I’m describing here is the type of inflammation you want to avoid. It’s called chronic inflammation and it’s incredibly harmful. 

So how does the burger and fries or handful of chocolate chip cookies create inflammation? And if it causes inflammation is it acute or is it chronic? 

The relationship between food and inflammation are connected by how your body responds. Your body, specifically your liver, sends out a signal with every little bit of food you eat. It’s like a game of red light/green light. When you eat something your body likes, you get a green light. When you eat something your body doesn’t like, you get a red light. 

I’ll explain more about the foods you should eat and the foods you should avoid. Before I get to that, you need to know what inflammation is…really. 

So, what is inflammation, exactly?

As mentioned above, inflammation is simply your body’s natural response to a stressor. In terms of acute inflammation, that would mean a swollen ankle due to a sprain. But in terms of chronic inflammation, that would mean a long-term condition like diabetes or arthritis, both of which are typically managed by medications. 

For now, let’s forget about acute inflammation (the beneficial type). It’s nothing for us to worry about, and it’s a necessary response your body does a decent job managing.

You need to be concerned about chronic inflammation because if you have it, there is a lot you can do to manage it, and if you don’t have it, you should know how to avoid it. 

You have chronic inflammation if you have:

  • Heart Disease
  • Type 2 Diabetes or Insulin Resistance
  • Arthritis
  • Alzheimer’s 
  • Asthma
  • Hepatitis 
  • Celiac Disease
  • IBS
  • (if you are) Obese

Of course, if you have celiac disease or asthma, for example, there is nothing you can do to make it just go away. But you can do a lot to manage the symptoms or flare ups by managing lifestyle factors, especially food choices.

How Is Inflammation Measured?

If you’re experiencing inflammation, it may be very obvious. For example, if you have celiac disease and eat gluten, you’ll develop stomach pain or possibly worse. However, if inflammation is suspected due to symptoms (i.e. a fever) but not diagnosed, or if the amount of inflammation needs to be measured, a medical practitioner will do a blood test that measures a protein made in your liver called C-Reactive Protein (CRP). 

CRPs are your body’s first responders when an infection or inflammation arises. They’re sort of like your body’s personal firefighters putting out flames. 

A CRP test can detect low to high levels of this protein, but it can’t determine where the inflammation is. Other testing needs to be done for that. 

How Do the Foods You Eat Cause (or Reduce)  Inflammation? 

Everything you eat has an effect on your body. Literally nothing is neutral. Nothing. There are plenty of foods you can eat to reduce inflammation (read that), but for now I want to explain how many foods actually cause inflammation. 

It should come as no surprise that most ultra-processed foods cause inflammation. Cookies, candy, soda, packaged “diet” foods, packaged “low carb” foods, fried foods, processed vegetable oils (corn, canola and soybean especially) etc., as well as red meat and alcohol all trigger an immune response resulting in some form of inflammation. 

The more processed foods you eat, the greater the likelihood your body will develop chronic inflammation. 

When you eat any of the processed food listed above, your gut bacteria changes. If you eat them often, your gut bacteria changes significantly, sending out inflammatory signals, even in the absence of eating. 

In addition to that. The microbes that change from good to bad in your gut also send signals to your hunger hormones, telling you to eat more. This is an extremely simplified explanation, but this 1-2 combo alone is enough to cause an inflammation firestorm, fat storage, achy joints and any number of other autoimmune problems. 

Your body is amazing and wants to be healthy, but eating bad food too often is no joke. Your body can only hold out for so long. 

Which Foods Control or Reduce Inflammation? 

Just about everything that can be made without the use of a factory or machinery is going to reduce inflammation in some way. Anti-inflammatory foods are the opposite of processed foods and have an opposite effect on your body. 

Herbs and spices, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and some whole grains all can benefit your body from the inside out. 

The purpose of eating anti-inflammatory foods is not to eat healthy foods on top of unhealthy inflammatory foods, but to eat more anti-inflammatory foods to improve the overall health of your body. 

Anti-inflammatory foods contain nutrients like vitamins, including A, B, C, D, K & E. As well as plant-based nutrients like polyphenols. 

Anti-inflammatory foods help to:

  • Increase beneficial bacteria, reduce bad bacteria and boost gut health
  • Boost your immune system
  • Strengthen bones 
  • Control blood sugar levels
  • Decrease the risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, etc., or becoming obese
  • Improve symptoms related to arthritis, diabetes, asthma, etc.

Anti-Inflammatory Foods to Eat More Of

  • All cruciferous vegetables (Brussels Sprouts. Cauliflower, Broccoli, etc.)
  • Tomatoes (fresh or cooked)
  • Carrots, Celery, Cucumbers, Peppers
  • Onions, Garlic, Leeks
  • Squash (Zucchini, Spaghetti, Acorn, Butternut)
  • Fruits (especially Berries)
  • Avocados & Avocado Oil
  • Spices (especially Ginger, Turmeric, Pepper, Rosemary, Oregano)
  • Quinoa, Brown Rice
  • Baked Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes
  • Nuts & Seeds
  • Unsweetened Nut Butters
  • Olives & Olive Oil

When Good Foods Cause Bad Inflammation

If you're the type of person that is really good about eating a mostly anti-inflammatory diet, but still have flare ups from time to time, perhaps with your skin or some digestive problems, you've still got inflammation.

As frustrating as it sounds, some really healthy foods can cause inflammation in people who are intolerant to them. I once had a client who was allergic to garlic, and I have had lots of clients who are intolerant to dairy. If you have a food allergy, you've probably been to a doctor and know this. Food allergies can be very serious so work with a medical practitioner if you suspect you have a food allergy.

Food intolerances, on the other hand, could be related to enzymes your body may not have that are needed to break the offender food down. For example, when people become lactose intolerant, it's because they don't have enough of the digestive enzyme called lactase needed to break it down.

If you feel good eating healthy foods, keep eating them. Avoid the processed garbage foods that trigger inflammation. If you suspect you have a food intolerance, one of the best ways to pinpoint the offender food is by doing an elimination diet.