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Top 4 Inflammatory Foods to Avoid for Better Health

To achieve an anti-inflammatory diet, these are the biggest, baddest sources of free radicals out there. Start limiting these and feel better fast!

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What are free radicals?

Free radicals are damaged molecules caused mainly by heat or chemical reactions. They steal vital elements from our cells, causing chain reactions of damage and speed up the aging process as well as inflammation.

For more information, check out this post on the Anti-Inflammatory Diet.


Source #1 : Industrial fats and oils (and most burned things)

While plants and their oils can be good for us, the processing involved makes all the difference between a "good fat" and a "bad fat".

The best ones like olive oil, sunflower, and avocado oil, are almost always expeller pressed, which is basically a juicer but for oil: smash, filter, and bottle it up. They often come in darker bottles to protect their naturally occurring antioxidants and increase their shelf life.

The worst ones, like soybean, corn, canola, vegetable and any basic cheap oil in a clear bulk bottle, go through a process like this:

Issue 1: Lots of chemicals.

Issue 2: The cheap oil is heated beyond its smoke point.

Smoke Point

The smoke point of an oil is the point at which it starts smoking; obvious enough, but more importantly it is the point at which an oil starts burning and oxidizing/breaking down.

Where there is smoke or burning, there are free radicals.

Canola is particularly bad for this process because the Omega 3s it contains burn up first around 50° C / 122° F. So the heart health claims on a cheap canola oil are about as accurate as slapping a "Diabetes Friendly" sticker on a can of cola.

This is the real problem behind fried foods - most companies start with the cheap stuff that is already partially burned, then put it back in the deep fryer, crank the heat up, and reuse the oil over...and over...and over again.

Those free radicals keep piling up higher and higher, and it seeps into the fried foods.

Another related ingredient to avoid: hydrogenated oils.

This is vegetable oil (see above) that is taken even further in processing, making it the most highly processed food I can think of.

Adding heat, pressure, and a nickel catalyst (yum), hydrogen gas is shot into the oil to create artificial saturated fat.

Remember the trans fats all over the news in 2015? They are mainly from hydrogenated oils. In 2015 the FDA removed them from the Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) list, and companies were required to limit them in foods.

The loophole is companies can still use hydrogenated oils and list products as containing zero grams of trans fat, as long as it's 0.49 grams of trans fats or less per serving. The problem with that is heart and brain damage, and negative blood sugar effects start around 1.5 grams per day, and I've met several patients who consumed over 3 grams daily while thinking they were consuming none.

Main sources of industrial oils:

  1. Fried foods

    1. Chips, fries, chicken nuggets, and anything else with a crispy outside

  2. Cheap oils and margarines

    1. Cheap oil in clear bottles, vegetable shortening, I Can't Believe It's Not Smart-Country-Balance-Crock, and their store equivalents.

  3. Baked goods

    1. Cakes, pies, donuts, cookies, pastries, muffins and other bakery items, especially shelf stable, sweet or enriched bread items - the stuff in plastic wrappers is going to have the most.

  4. Creamy condiments

    1. Ranch or Caesar or Thousand Island dressing, mayonnaise, and peanut butter to name a few.

Before you get too depressed thinking about all this stuff you should be avoiding, take heart: there are natural and healthier versions of all of these things.

Look for wording like 100% Natural or Organic labels. Many companies will advertise that they're using better oils right on the front label, like "No hydrogenated oils", "No bad fats", "Made with avocado/sunflower/olive oil" (these three are pretty much always expeller pressed and minimally refined)

And of course, you can always double check the ingredient list.

For the best oils, see the Anti-Inflammatory foods list. TK link


Source #2 : Nitrate cured meats

Cured meats are the ones you have probably heard about as a health concern.

They usually get their own aisle in a store, separate from the fresh meats:

Hot dogs.


And the favorite health demon (and many people's guilty pleasure) - Bacon.

Cured meats are raw or cooked meats that are commonly processed with a curing salt called sodium nitrite or sodium nitrate (almost always found at the end of the ingredients list.) It's used as a preservative and also because it encourages an appealing pink/red coloration of the meat. The main issue with nitrates and nitrites is they undergo a chemical reaction with the protein in the meat, forming new compounds called nitrosamines.

Nitrosamines found in nitrate cured meats are super inflammatory, strong free radicals.

It is very strong in the gut, where the nitrosamines touch first - worsening (if not directly causing) digestive disorders like GERD, Crohn's, IBS, and more.

Nitrosamines will also get into the rest of the body and have been tied to many inflammatory issues, including migraines, cardiovascular disease, depression, fibromyalgia, gout, and so on.

The World Health Organization (WHO) studied nitrate cured meats for over a decade before officially declaring them to be a carcinogen: 50 grams (3.5 tablespoons) per day increases your risk of gastrointestinal cancer by about 20%, and increases all cancer risk by 10%.

That's at 50 grams per day - a little more than what fits in a shot glass. The standard single serving for meat is double that, 100 grams or about a deck of cards.

What about people eating more?

The good news is that after the WHO issued the warning, people understandably started avoiding sodium nitrate/nitrite and demanding companies make alternatives, and companies started to make nitrate free versions of everything, calling them "Uncured."


A note on "Uncured" alternative meats

After the WHO announcement of the tie between sodium nitrate cured meats and cancer, people and companies started reacting. There is now an entire market devoted to "Uncured" processed meats - Uncured bacon, hot dogs, sausage, and no nitrate added deli meats, etc. These are technically still cured, but using celery and sometimes cherry or beet powders as alternative curing agents.

Some people will debate that celery powder naturally contains nitrates and nitrates which is just as bad. What they forget to mention is that celery powder is also a powerhouse of antioxidants.

If nitrosamines are formed in the uncured products, they are also given a hefty dose of other antioxidants that are present at the same time, which will neutralize those free radicals before the food actually gets to your mouth.


Source #3 : Chemicals

Ok, not all chemicals, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb:

An ingredient list should read more like a recipe card, and less like an organic chemistry exam.

In general, the closer to a recipe an ingredient list sounds, the better.

To be fair, some chemical sounding ingredients, like sodium chloride or potassium iodide, are simple minerals that are beneficial and even required for good health.

There are only a few key words you need to know you're looking at a bad player ⬇️

The Chemical Watch List:

  1. Anything with a number. Polysorbate 80, Caramel color E150D, Red 40, Blue 1, Yellow 5, etc. Most of these are derivatives from the petroleum industry, are already banned in Europe and other parts of the world, and some are in the process of being banned in the US because of their now well-established damaging health effects.

    1. Artificial colors and brain damage

    2. Artificial colors and gut damage

    3. Caramel color E150D

    4. Polysorbate 80

  2. Artificial Sweeteners: Sucralose, Aspartame, Acesulfame or anything that ends in -ame is a relative of Aspartame. These cause pretty serious gut inflammation as well as whole body inflammation - for more info check out the Ultimate Guide to Sweeteners.

  3. Sodium Nitrate cured meats (see above)

  4. Other chemistry-ish sounding items are worth a Google if you have the time - some are safe, others are less so.


Source #4 : Refined sugar and excess carbohydrates

Most people have heard by now that sugar is not the healthiest thing out there.

I dunno about it being the root of all evil, but humans definitely don't need a whole lot of it.

We do love our sugar though.

The reason we love sugar is because we evolved in a calorie scarce environment - most of our ancestors until about 100 years ago lived on the edge of food insecurity, if not downright starvation.

The best time of the year was late summer when fruit ripened on the nearby trees, and that sugar allowed us to put on a nice layer of fat right before winter. Winter was always a difficult and lean time, so the fat burned off, to be repeated again the next year.

Fortunately, humanity has figured out how to increase farming yields to the point of excess. As of right now, we make enough food to feed 1.5 times the world population (more than 10 billion vs the current 7 billion on the planet.)

The new problem is we now have way too much, and it's the dose that makes the poison.

Sugar is well established to increase inflammation, especially chronic inflammation.

Excess carbohydrates in general are more inflammatory than the other major fuel source: fats. The reason is because when we burn carbs or fat for calories (protein isn't burned, discussed in depth in Macros and Metabolism) we create free radicals - remember, burning anything creates them.

Carbs, however, are a dirtier burn than fats, and create more free radicals.

The Best Sources

Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are better sources of carbs because they are high in antioxidants, which balances out in favor of them being anti-inflammatory, negating the free radicals caused by the carbs. Check out the Anti-Inflammatory foods list for more info. TK Link

Processed carbs, on the other hand, don't have these antioxidants. Cup for cup, they usually have more carbs than the natural stuff, and many of them also have added chemicals or cheap vegetable oils listed above. Add in the extra carbs coming from them and you have a pretty potent inflammatory cocktail.

The Most Inflammatory Sources, roughly in order:

  1. Soda

  2. Candy

  3. Processed baked goods - Think shelf stable cakes, cookies, donuts, crackers

  4. Processed snack foods - Chips, cheese curls, anything that ends in "tos"

  5. Fast food carbs - French fries, hamburger buns, pies, milkshakes

  6. Ice cream and other frozen desserts

  7. White grain products - White bread, white rice, etc

The last one isn't too inflammatory for most people, as long as it's not a large part of your meal/diet. It's a matter of the amount compared to what else you're eating.


Remember: there are natural and healthier versions of all of these things.

Look for wording like 100% Natural or Organic labels. Many companies will advertise that they're using better ingredients right on the front label, like "No nitrates", "No bad fats", and Gluten free items tend to also eliminate chemicals while they're at it.

And of course, you can always double check the ingredient list.

In general, if it reads more like a recipe card and less like an Organic Chemistry test, you're probably in good shape!


Comments? Questions? Head on over to The Forum! 

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