14 Inflammatory Foods That Cause Weight Gain
You cut calories, fit in time at the gym, and never eat after 8 p.m. So why is it that you still can’t deflate that spare tire hanging around your tummy? Consider this: your body might be fighting against your weight loss efforts because you’re eating too many inflammatory foods that cause chronic inflammation.
What is chronic inflammation?
You can think of chronic inflammation as your home security system. Before you leave your house every morning and when you’re ready to settle in for the night, you push some buttons and turn the alarm on. In doing so, you’re securing your home and protecting yourself from invaders.
Your body’s inflammation response works in a similar fashion. Your immune system is the home security system and inflammation is the alarm. An alarm—or inflammation—is triggered whenever the system detects an invader. In your body’s case, that invader can be anything from a bruised knee to an allergic reaction to pollen. In a functioning system, your immune system will eventually disarm the alarm.
That’s not the case with chronic, low-grade inflammation. You see, on top of sporadic inflammatory culprits, such as injuries or illnesses, there’s a more insidious perpetrator that’s likely triggering your alarm every day: food.
Foods that cause inflammation are one of the biggest contributors to chronic inflammation.
When you eat them daily, you’ll constantly be turning on your body’s alarm system. Because your immune system alarm is never disarmed, over time, this incessant inflammatory response can lead to weight gain, drowsiness, skin problems, digestive issues, and a host of diseases, from diabetes to obesity to cancer.
If your weight-loss efforts have plateaued before you’ve reached your body goals, make sure you’ve kicked these inflammatory foods to the curb and replaced them with their healing counterparts: anti-inflammatory foods.
We found over 40 examples of these foods that cause inflammation and categorized them into 14 different inflammation-causing food groups.
Common Culprits: Soda, snack bars, candy, baked sweets, coffee drinks
Bet you could’ve guessed this one. According to a review in the Journal of Endocrinology, when we eat too much glucose-containing sugar, the excess glucose our body can’t process quickly enough can increase levels of pro-inflammatory messengers called cytokines. And that’s not all. Sugar also suppresses the effectiveness of our white blood cells’ germ-killing ability, weakening our immune system and making us more susceptible to infectious diseases.
How can you cut back on inflammatory sugar? A simple swap is subbing out harmful high-glycemic foods (which spike and crash blood sugar) for low-GI alternatives, like whole grains and foods with healthy fats, protein, and fiber. A study in the Journal of Nutrition discovered that on an equal calorie diet, overweight participants who ate a low-GI diet reduced levels of the inflammatory biomarker C-reactive protein whereas participants on a high GI diet did not. Sugar isn’t only added to obvious products like candy bars and sodas. It’s also lurking in these foods with added sugar.
Common Culprits: Mayonnaise, salad dressings, barbecue sauce, crackers, bread, potato chips
Once we became aware of the artery-clogging ill effects of trans fats, manufacturers switched to injecting their products with or frying their foods in vegetable oils such as soy, corn, sunflower, safflower, or palm oil—which wasn’t much better. That’s because these vegetable oils have a high concentration of the inflammatory fat, omega-6, and are low in the anti-inflammatory fat, omega-3. In fact, Americans are eating so many vegetable-oil-laden products that the average person has an omega-6 to omega-3 ratio of around 20:1 when it should be 1:1.
Common Culprits: Fried foods like french fries, fried chicken, fish sticks, chicken tenders, onion rings
Another issue with these vegetable-oil-fried and processed foods is that they contain high levels of inflammatory advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These are compounds that form when products are cooked at high temperatures, pasteurized, dried, smoked, fried, or grilled. Researchers from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine found that when people cut out processed and fried foods that have high levels of AGEs, markers of inflammation in their body diminished.
Common Culprits: Pizza, white bread, crackers, pasta, pretzels, flour tortillas, breakfast cereals, bagels
Refined wheat flours have been stripped of their slow-digesting fiber and nutrients, which means your body breaks them down very quickly. The more quickly your body digests glucose-containing foods, like these carbs, the faster your blood sugar levels can spike. This also spikes your insulin levels—a compound associated with a pro-inflammatory response. A Journal of Nutrition study found that a diet high in refined grains showed a greater concentration of the inflammatory marker, PAI-1, in the blood. On the other hand, a diet rich in whole grains resulted in a lower concentration of the same marker as well as one of the most well-known inflammatory biomarkers, C-reactive protein (CRP).
Common Culprits: Milk, soft cheeses, yogurt, butter
While a moderate intake of yogurt can actually help decrease inflammation with its gut-healing probiotics, dairy is also a source of inflammation-inducing saturated fats. On top of that, studies have connected full-fat dairy with disrupting our gut microbiome, actually decreasing levels of our good gut bacteria which are key players in reducing inflammation. And lastly, dairy is a common allergen—30 to 50 million Americans are lactose intolerant, according to the FDA. Either way, any type of allergen can trigger inflammatory reactions through the release of histamines. If you feel particularly bloated after a few blocks of cheese, consider cutting dairy from your diet.
P.S. Don’t worry about not getting enough calcium if you cut out dairy: A 2014 study published in the British Medical Journal found that high milk intake resulted in higher bone fracture incidences in women. Instead of relying on animal products, you can include more calcium-rich foods that aren’t dairy in your daily diet.
Common Culprits: No-sugar-added products, no-calorie “diet” soft drinks
A 2014 study published in Nature found that artificial sweetener consumption in both mice and humans enhances the risk of glucose intolerance by altering our gut microbiome. Researchers also found an increase in bad gut bacteria that have previously been associated with type 2 diabetes. When our bodies can’t metabolize glucose properly, it can lead to a greater release of inflammatory cytokines, as is the case with sugar and refined carbs. On top of that, artificial sweeteners disrupt the composition of our gut microbiota by decreasing levels of the good bacteria Bacteroides, which are known to help release anti-inflammatory compounds.
Common Culprits: Breakfast cereals, processed foods containing fruit, candy, ice cream
“Artificial” means that the product is not naturally found in nature. And that means your body usually doesn’t have a way to process it. Ingredients like artificial coloring—which are made from petroleum (oil)—have been linked to host of health issues, from disrupting hormone function to causing hyperactivity in children, to tumor production in animal studies. And a meta-analysis in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine found that our immune system attempts to defend the body from these synthetic colorants, which activates the inflammatory cascade. Another study by researchers at Georgia State University found that additives like emulsifying agents used to thicken foods can disrupt the bacterial makeup of the gut, leading to inflammation and weight gain in animals. The evidence in humans is sparse, but your best bet would still be to steer clear of these ingredients and stick to their natural counterparts.
RELATED: Your guide to the anti-inflammatory diet that heals your gut, slows the signs of aging, and helps you lose weight.
Common Culprits: Burgers, pizza, candy, chips
We may have just absolved saturated fats of their connection to heart disease, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of the woods just yet. That’s because multiple studies have connected saturated fats with triggering white adipose tissue (fat tissue) inflammation. This white tissue is the type of fat that stores energy, rather than burns energy like brown fat cells do. And as your fat cells get bigger with greater intakes of saturated fats, they actually release pro-inflammatory agents that promote systemic inflammation, according to a review in the journal Expert Review of Cardiovascular Therapy.
Conventional Grain-Fed Meats
Common Culprits: Beef, chicken, pork
Because cattle, chicken, and pigs didn’t evolve on a grain-fed diet, many producers have to load up their animals with antibiotics. These drugs not only keep the animals from getting diseases in cramped feedlots or getting sick from their unnatural diet, but they also help them (and us) gain weight faster. Altogether, this means we’re eating meats that are higher in inflammatory saturated fats, have greater levels of inflammatory omega-6s from the corn and soy diet, and our body thinks it’s in a constant state of attack due to ingesting leftover levels of antibiotics and hormones. Even worse, when we grill meat at high temperatures, it creates inflammatory carcinogens.
Take steps to remove meat foods that cause inflammation from your diet with these tips:
- Limiting red meat consumption to less than three times a week
- Make sure you pick up lean cuts of grass-fed beef for your protein. This healthy source provides more healthy saturated and trans fats as well as inflammation-fighting omega-3s.
- Add a bit of lemon juice to your meats: the acid acts as an antioxidant, protecting you from the harmful carcinogens producing during grilling.
Common Culprits: Bacon, hot dogs, bologna, sausage, jerky
Processed meats are the worst of both worlds. They’re typically made from red meats high in saturated fats and they contain high levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs), inflammatory compounds that are created when these processed meats are dried, smoked, pasteurized, and cooked at high temperatures. Not to mention the fact that these meats are injected with preservatives, colorings, and artificial flavorings that also register as foreign attackers to our immune system.
Gluten from Store-Bought Bread
Common Culprits: Store-bought bread made from refined, white flour
Many of the breads on the market can go from flour and yeast to baked bread in just a few hours. But this shortening of the period of fermentation causes a decrease in the amount of starch and gluten the yeast typically can pre-digest for us. Without the assistance in digestion, it can be harder for our bodies to digest the bread’s gluten, causing inflammation in the lining of your intestines. Experts believe this could be one reason for the rise in gluten sensitivity among Americans. Another theory is that modern strains of wheat contain a super starch known as amylopectin A, which has been shown to have inflammatory effects.
To avoid this food that causes inflammation, consider making some gluten-free swaps:
- Serve burgers in lettuce wraps
- Use cauliflower crust as a pizza base
- Make avocado toast using sliced sweet potato instead of bread
Either way, store-bought breads should be a pass if you’ve been struggling to lose weight. We are, however, giving bakery-made sourdough the green light. Sourdough bread is one of the surprising fermented foods that provide healthy probiotics to help heal your gut—key in helping to reduce inflammation!
A Second Round of Alcohol
Common Culprits: Beer, wine, and liquors
While some research has shown a drink a day can actually lower levels of the inflammatory biomarker C-reactive protein (CRP), too much alcohol actually has the opposite effect. That’s because the process of breaking down alcohol generates toxic byproducts that can damage liver cells, promote inflammation, and weaken the body’s immune system.
On the other hand, drinking in moderation can pose some benefits. The flavonoids and antioxidants found in wine—as well as the probiotics in beer—might actually contribute an anti-inflammatory effect, according to a study published in the journal Nutrients. We can’t say it enough, “Everything in moderation!”
Trans Fat Foods
Common Culprits: Deep-fried restaurant meals; baked goods like doughnuts, cookies, and muffins
Because manmade partially hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats, do not occur naturally in foods, our body doesn’t possess an adequate mechanism to break them down. And when our body senses an unknown, foreign object, it can stimulate an inflammatory response. According to the Mayo Clinic, these trans fats can cause inflammation by damaging the cells in the lining of blood vessels.
And a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who ate foods high in trans fat also had higher levels of markers of systemic inflammation, like interleukin 6 (IL-6) and C-reactive protein (CRP).
Thankfully, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a global initiative that will eliminate artificial trans fats by 2023. And while we’ve banned trans fats from our packaged food supply, you will still see trans fats on restaurant menus. As such, make sure to avoid eating trans-fat-laden restaurant foods.
Common Culprits: Fast food packaging
Even if you don’t know how to pronounce it, you should know what phthalates (thāl-ates) are. That’s because many of us are unknowingly eating this class of endocrine-disrupting chemical toxins. Similar to BPA, phthalates are used in plastic food and beverage packaging—and they’re not staying there.
An Environmental Health Perspectives study made headlines for its finding that people who often ate fast food had dose-dependent higher levels of phthalate metabolites than infrequent eaters. And there’s more bad news for all-day-breakfast lovers.
A separate study published in Environmental Science & Technology found phthalates to be associated with the CRP marker of inflammation while another study in Environmental Health connected higher exposure to phthalates with metabolic syndrome, a disease also commonly associated with increased levels of inflammation. Lowering inflammation is only one of the things that happen to your body when you give up fast food!