When your body is in a state of chronic inflammation, you may or may not recognize the symptoms. Compared to acute inflammation (which is what happens when you get a cat scratch or catch a cold), chronic inflammation creates milder symptoms. (Learn more about what inflammation actually is here.)
However, the consistent presence of inflammation slowly damages the body’s cells, tissues, and organs, which can affect their function and increase your risk of several conditions, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer.
Diet is just one factor in inflammation, but it’s a factor you have control over. No single food is to blame, but you might be more likely to experience chronic inflammation if your diet relies too heavily on these types of foods:
1. Foods high in added sugar.
We’re not talking about bananas and pineapple. Those are fruits with naturally occurring sugars, and they offer fiber to slow the digestion of sugars.
Added sugars are added during processing, and their sole purpose is to sweeten the food and make it tastier. The obvious examples of foods high in added sugar include cake, candy, and soda—but you can find added sugars in many surprising foods, including sandwich bread and marinara sauce.
Sweets are fine in moderation, but consuming them daily in large amounts is harsh on the body. (And remember that your intake of added sugars accumulates throughout the day, so even if you’re not having an afternoon cola, you might still be consuming too much.)
Sugar releases cytokines, which is a substance released during an immune response that causes inflammatory symptoms.
2. Saturated fats.
Saturated fats are a type of dietary fat that—when consumed in excess—is linked to an increase in “bad” LDL cholesterol. Additionally, it’s linked to something called adipose inflammation, or inflammation of fat tissue.
Saturated fats are typically found in animal foods, such as dairy products, lard, and meat—especially beef. You can also find it in fried foods, coconut oil, and palm oil.
3. Refined flour.
There’s been some confusion over flour and wheat products in general. Some people mistakenly believe you should avoid wheat and flour altogether, but in reality, nutrition experts recommend avoiding refined grains. (Whole grains still get an A+ from dietitians.)
The refining process strips away wheat’s fiber and vitamins. While this does yield a softer and more cooperative flour, it also turns the flour into a “simple carb.” The body digests white flour just like it does another famous simple carb—sugar.
Some white flour is fine: Experts recommend making half of your grains whole grains (which means the rest can be refined and you’ll be just fine).
4. Highly processed foods.
It’s true that not all processed food is bad for you, but the more processed a food is, the less beneficial it will be for your body. Highly processed foods tend to have a few things in common:
They are often high in sodium and sugar to improve flavor and shelf life.
They are often high in saturated fats and trans fats because these fats are solid at room temperature, which is ideal for packaged crackers, cookies, and snack cakes.
They are often made with refined flour to improve flavor and shelf life; whole-grain flour is known for going rancid sooner than white flour, so it can’t sit on store shelves for months at a time.
They are often low in important vitamins and minerals, especially potassium and fiber.
In other words, highly processed foods contain a number of pro-inflammatory foods or ingredients.
Diet may just be one factor in preventing disease, but if you want to lower your risk of conditions like heart disease and type 2 diabetes, curbing your intake of these foods is a good place to start.