The 5 Most Inflammatory Foods You Should be Avoiding in Your Diet

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I'm Tina

I’m the owner of Carrots ‘N’ Cake as well as a Certified Nutrition Coach and Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner (FDN-P). I use macros and functional nutrition to help women find balance within their diets while achieving their body composition goals.

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I’m so excited to have Kristin guest post on CNC today. If you missed yesterday’s blog post, I’m working with her over the next several months to improve some of my gut issues and reduce inflammation. Speaking of which, read on to see what she has to say about the top inflammatory foods and how removing them from your diet can jumpstart your recovery. 

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

The 5 Most Inflammatory Foods You Should be Avoiding in Your Diet

If you told me five years ago I would no longer be able to eat the very foods I loved most, I would have been utterly crushed. Think about how many diets today promise that you can “have your cake and eat it too”. Weight Watchers makes you give up more points, but ultimately still be able to eat whatever you want; “If It Fits Your Macros” or IIFYM has become a health trend with bodybuilders and weight lifters promising that a carb is a carb no matter what, giving the green light on donuts and white bread if that’s how you want to spend your precious carbohydrates. But what about when it’s not about calories, macronutrients, or restriction?

What about those of us whose bodies actually don’t have the right mechanisms we need to be able to indulge in our favorite things?

You are not alone.

A Brief Overview of My Digestive Health Journey

It’s been 10 years since I was first diagnosed with a “chronic” digestive issue, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (or IBS). Nine years since I found out I had acid reflux and became lactose intolerant, and eight years since I finally got the real underlying diagnosed — ulcerative colitis.

I vividly remember asking my doctors during what I could be avoiding food-wise to help my condition, and every time without fail, their answer was, “the food you eat has no impact on what you have.” It just didn’t add up to me. I wasn’t a functional nutrition specialist at the time, but even so, I knew deep down that a lot of the food I was eating wasn’t working for me (hello, bloating and abdominal pain!) yet some felt really good and healing.

And so, my investigative work began. I burned the midnight oil researching about the impacts of food on gut health, learning the most healing and also the most irritating foods, and finally came up with a plan. In this post, I’ll explain to you the five most inflammatory and irritating foods that can trigger or exacerbate digestive issues, and at the end will fuel you with my favorite healing foods.  

Recovery Starts by Removing These 5 Foods

  1. Dairy

First up, dairy. This one is usually a doozy and can be one of the hardest sacrifices to make, especially since many arguments can be made about the health benefits to natural fats and proteins. However, much research shows, as far back as the New York Times in 1982, that through evolution, our bodies have ceased to make the proper enzyme to break down dairy’s sugar particles once we reach a certain age. That’s because breastfeeding naturally ceases and we no longer require dairy to grow big and strong. The milk enzyme, called lactase, is designed to break down the components of dairy products so that they can be absorbed through the intestinal wall during digestion. So, if you have a lactase deficiency and consume large amounts of a lactose-containing items, like milk, cheese, or ice cream, much of the sugars pass through the stomach and into the intestines without being broken down. These large particles then absorb water and become food for intestinal bacteria that form gases and acids. This often results in abdominal bloating, flatulence, cramps, loose stools and diarrhea. Removing dairy can help to alleviate this.

Eat these foods instead

Here at Thrive by food, we are big fans of non-dairy milk like almond milk, preferably homemade. Here’s my recipe! For recipes with cheese in them, look for alternatives that use nutritional yeast which tastes remarkably similar to cheese.

  1. Gluten-Containing Grains

I believe that gluten sensitivity today is highly underrated because many don’t realize that how they feel is actually a result of consuming gluten. Gluten is the protein found in many grains that binds them together, but our bodies weren’t really built to digest it. Especially if gluten gets into your circulatory system, it can spread inflammation throughout the body.

Those who are sensitive often feel fatigued throughout the day, have trouble sleeping and have inflammation in the gut, joints, and thyroid as well as experience unexplained weight gain or difficulty losing weight. So, while you may not feel awful the moment you bite into a gluten-full burger, it doesn’t mean your body is tolerating it well, you just might not know.

To find out if this is the case, I often run a food sensitivity test, or a gluten-cross reactivity test, with my clients to find out if this sensitivity is present, how strong it is, and if there are any other food sensitivities present (99.9% of the time there are). In particular, gluten-containing grains to avoid are barley, bran, farro, kamut, oats, rye, seitan and spelt, as some examples.

Eat these foods instead:

Grains like amaranth, arrowroot, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum and tapioca or make spiralized veggies like cucumber, zucchini, carrots and sweet potatoes.

Every person is unique in the foods they can and can’t digest well, so running a food sensitivity test can be really insightful.

  1. Soy

Once touted as a healthy superfood protein, we now know that soy can in fact cause a great deal of health issues. Not only is the soybean one of the most difficult beans to digest, but the type of soy we consume today is highly processed in foods like commercial soy milk, soy meat, and soy ice cream. Soybeans are some of the most genetically engineered crops, so unless you’re buying from a trusted organic source, you may be eating a highly altered form of soy that your body simple doesn’t recognize and therefore cannot digest.

Another issue with soy is that it’s a phytoestrogen, which can cause estrogen levels to become elevated. This is concerning for both men women and can be highly symptomatic.

Eat these foods instead:

Generally speaking, gluten-free soy sauce and verified organic soy products like miso and tempeh are the best options, or to avoid soy altogether, you can have coconut aminos instead of soy sauce and meat, bean or legume-based proteins instead of tofu.

  1. Sugar

Did you know that sugar can be up to six times more addictive than cocaine? Not only that, but it’s actually even more lethal than this deadly drug. The biggest issue about sugar today is that it’s in everything — not just the obvious foods like ice cream and cookies, but condiments like ketchup, store-bought tea blends, spice rubs on meat, natural juices, and much more. The next time you are at the grocery store, look at a few ingredient labels and chances are you’ll find a form of sugar on there.

Sugar is problematic for a number of reasons. First off, when we consume sugar, dopamine levels in our brain surge, which creates a release of serotonin, the “happy hormone”, into our blood stream. This leads to a rise in insulin, which is supposed to bring blood sugar levels back in range, but also creates a sugar crash. To avoid the effects of this sugar crash, our brains convince us to have more to avoid that awful feeling. And so, the cycle continues.

When it comes to gut health, if you have dysbiotic (or bad) bacteria present, sugar is food to them, so this can proliferate gut issues and lead to serious infections if unaddressed. The fructose in sugar can also interfere with our appetite hormone, leptin, which causes us to over-eat sugar, eventually leading to obesity.

Eat these foods instead:

Make or buy products that use honey, date sugar, monkfruit or raw maple syrup instead of regular table sugar. You can also blend together 1 frozen banana with 1 cup of frozen berries and some full-fat coconut milk for a delicious, sugar-free, fruity ice cream bowl.

  1. Processed foods

Generally speaking, most processed foods (or foods that are store-bought in a box or can) contain one or more of the above foods, plus other offensive ingredients like canola oil, “natural flavors”, casein (similar to gluten), and more. While convenient, processed foods can cause a great deal of systemic inflammation as well as digestive issues.

Eat these foods instead:

As much as you can, opt for whole, natural foods. When grocery shopping, stick to the perimeter aisles by purchasing produce and organic, pasture-raised meats.

Beat the Inflammation with These Anti-Inflammatory Foods

Thankfully, there are a number of incredibly healing superfoods with anti-inflammatory properties. These include:

  • Bone broth
  • Aloe juice
  • Turmeric
  • Peppermint
  • Fermented foods

I go into detail on each of these in this article. As you work to remove the five food categories above and eat more clean and whole food options, be sure to consume one or more of these anti-inflammatory foods every day to bring down inflammation and help your body recover.

An Example Anti-Inflammatory Diet

If this post has you wondering what you can even eat anymore, I’ve got you covered! Below is a sampling of foods I eat on a regular basis which keeps inflammation at bay, nourishes my body inside and out, and gives me incredible energy, fantastic sleep, and an unmatched sense of well-being.

  • Breakfast: Chia pudding, a green smoothie, or grainless trail mix
  • Snacks: Green grapes, mixed berries, sliced cucumbers or carrots
  • Lunch: A big organic salad with as many veggies as I can fit, topped with some grilled, free-range chicken or wild-caught salmon.
  • Afternoon snack: A handful of macadamia nuts, almonds or plantain chips
  • Dinner: A meat dish such as chicken, pork or fish with a side of veggies like asparagus, broccoli or a seasonal squash.
  • After Dinner/Dessert: Semi-sweet teas like chamomile, licorice root (great for gut healing) or lavender.

I genuinely hope this guide is useful to you as you navigate your way toward a better you — inside and out. I’d love to hear about your journey in the comments below this post! For more about me, visit thrivebyfood.com or find me on Instagram: @ThrivebyFood.

 As founder of Thrive by Food, a functional diagnostic nutrition and health coaching practice, Kristin Thomas spreads her message of natural digestive health through group programs, live international events, one-on-one coaching, blogs and podcast appearances. If you need a place to start, sign up for her FREE Gut Healing Recipe Guide and design a plan to begin healing your gut.

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38 Comments

  1. so I am pretty sure as a vegetarian I am eating all of the foods that are most reactive. I would be curious to see how I felt not eating those foods. I generally do not have too many stomach issues, but I do have lots of headaches. My young daughter is currently being seen to hopefully diagnos her tummy problems. (Celiac is the most probable but UC could also still be on the table, waiting on biopsy results).

  2. As interesting as this is to read, I do think it’s a little dangerous to be giving out advice like this to the general public when, as you said yourself, it’s something you’ve found is personal to you. I know you’re talking about reducing inflammation but it’s just such a dangerous path to be advising people who probably have no idea if they have inflammation or not. All these foods you’ve mentioned are absolutely fine in moderation. They don’t need to be demonised. It’s articles like this that create a fear culture with food and make things over-complicated.
    Usually I love your blog and I don’t mean to be so overly critical or sound harsh but it just niggled me a bit.
    Also, your food plan sounds so low in calories – where are the carbs at lunch and dinner?

  3. To say that sugar is more lethal than cocaine is untrue, highly inflammatory (no pun intended), and dangerous. This article contains so many fallacies and half-truths. If dairy, sugar, gluten are as dangerous as this article states, (and which you, Tina, must endorse, since you put this on your blog), then why are they part of Quinn’s diet?

  4. Where can one find published, peer-reviewed research to back up these claims? It would be nice to see where these ideas came from and how they have been confirmed and supported.

  5. Man- this post bums me out a lot. I know it was coming from a place of kindness and intended to educate but to suggest sugar is akin to cocaine is so sensationalist and inherently suggests you should feel shame for consuming it. I think villianizing huge groups of food (sugar, gluten, all processed foods etc) only makes people feel ashamed and guilty when they ultimately cannot stick to a strict or unattainable diet. I think we already commodify health and equate it to morality so much and this post is in that vein.

    I understand your profession is to support people through health journeys but frankly this post really sounds like it comes from a place of privilege. I can’t walk into my local Aldi and find arrowroot or millet or monkfruit. Additionally, people who live in food dessert areas or simply have very busy lives can’t reasonably avoid processed foods.

    Again, I don’t think this post was intended to shame or sensationalize but that’s very much what it does.

  6. Food/diets are so deeply personal and individualistic. I applaud you for listening to your body and doing what is right for you. My husband struggles with UC and so I know how intensely emotional food can be with your body simply does not work well. However, a few points in this article really bothered me.

    Sugar is not more addictive than cocaine. Certainly not “6 times more”. It is just NOT comparable. And honestly, as someone who has family members who had struggled with addiction it is not a fair or even logical comparison. And correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe the study that started this whole trendy “fact” was actually a study done on RATS, showing they preferred sweetened water over cocaine given intravenously. I don’t see how this can be directly related to humans with complex brains.

    Also, on a much less serious note, tea is not dessert. 😛 Tea is fantastic and the health benefits are inarguable. But to label it “dessert” rings a bit disordered to me. Its fine to not have dessert, if that is what works for you. But I think there are many desserts that fit in your food choices, and I would have loved for something else to be used as an example. Banana nice cream, perhaps?

  7. As a Registered Dietitian and the spouse of a someone diagnosed with UC, I find this post very concerning. The title of the post gives the impression that everyone should be avoiding these foods, which just is not true. *Please* specify that if a person is dealing with an autoimmune disease, avoiding these foods *may help* alleviate symptoms, but it is also very individual to each person. I deal with autoimmune patients every day and let me tell you finding a diet that is safe and nutritionally adequate is not as simple or universal as this makes it seem. It is not wise to so generally prescribe this restrictive diet to your entire population of readers. Instead, I usually recommend people follow an elimination style diet so they can find their own particular “trigger foods” An example would be this one: https://www.umassmed.edu/nutrition/ibd/ibdaid/.
    I know you are trying to find a plan that works for you, and believe me I understand the struggle, but please be thoughtful about how “advice” like this can read to your audience.

  8. Sorry, this guest post really rubbed me the wrong way, especially the title…foods you “should” be avoiding.

    For the majority of people, these foods are absolutely fine and can be part of a healthful diet. Demonizing these foods (LOL forever at sugar being more addictive than cocaine) can lead to disordered thinking and obsessing around foods for people who don’t need to avoid them.

    I’m glad the guest poster was able to find something that worked for her, but this post comes off as more of a “everyone should do this” guide. It would be a shame if someone without any food sensitives read this post and felt they needed to cut these foods out of their diet.

  9. I agree with so much of this! But I have to respectfully disagree with pushing people away from gluten. People have been eating gluten for thousands of years, it’s only recently we have begun to develop gluten-intolerance. Research indicates much of this may be related to loss of beneficial bacteria in our guts, i.e., we have lost gut flora diversity which is likely linked with increased cases of IBD. Unless a doctor diagnoses someone with IBD of Celiac disease, I think it’s detrimental to the human population (species) to stop eating gluten (a good protein source), as it will further promote loss of gut flora diversity and may actually perpetuate food sensitivity in future generations.

    Eg, Palma et al. 2009. Effects of a gluten-free diet on gut microbiota and immune function in healthy
    adult human subjects. British Journal of Nutrition, 102:1154–1160

  10. I’m a daily reader and this is just… insane. Sugar =/= cocaine. Come on now. A quick google of the people touting some of these beliefs shows them showing up on websites such as “quackwatch.” I’m not an expert, but if your name shows up on a site like that, I’d hazard to guess that you’re not well regarded in the science world. I’m glad you’ve found a diet that works with your condition, but blanket advice like this is irresponsible, at best.

  11. I think it’s not very ethical to have someone who is NOT an RD or a doctor giving out blanket medical advice like this. Also, pretty sure that 1 cup of berries plus a banana DO in fact have lots of sugar- not added sugar, but it is not “sugar free.”

  12. To continue to tout that sugar is “more addictive than cocaine” is not backed by science and promotes fear-mongering (see article below). As a board certified nurse practitioner, it concerns me that people, especially those without any credentials, are giving out advice that is not backed by science. Creating fear around food is the last thing those who are looking to improve their health need. This whole culture of “health coaching” by those who are not trained is irresponsible and downright dangerous.

    Westwater et al. 2016. Sugar addiction: the state of the science
    https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5174153/

  13. Kristin talks about how she eliminated these food groups to heal her UC and IBS. Is that the recommendation or is this advice for everyone? How would one know if something in their diet is causing inflammation? And finally, do DTF meal plans take these food group eliminations into consideration?

  14. I agree with many of the other commenters. This kind of information is dangerously misleading, unsupported by science, and has the potential to create disordered habits and thinking to those sensitive to eating issues. Food seems to get blame for every single health issue (not just on this blog, but our culture in general) and it has been given far too much power. There are many other factors in our lives that can contribute to our health, many of which we have no direct control over. I do like to read this blog but feel like it has ventured farther and farther away from actual “health” and has become more about restrictive diets and exercise habits that aren’t necessarily conducive to a truly healthy lifestyle.

  15. Wow, you struck a nerve with this one! Personally, I really enjoyed this post because I can totally identify with having a health issue caused by food.

    I’m sensitive to MSG (in all its hidden forms, “natural flavors”, autolysed yeast, yeast extract, smoke flavoring, etc) and it triggers an aura migraine. Basically if I mess up and eat MSG, I go temporarily blind (plus a headache, confusion, light sensitivity, etc)! It’s not a small thing!

    None of my doctors suggested that food could be contributing and they wanted to put me on some hardcore drugs instead. It took me a long time to figure out for myself but now I feel like I have my life back!

    Based on my experiences, I know that MSG is really a terrible thing for everyone! It is a known neurotoxin. Just because others can metabolize it without going blind does not mean they’re not affected in some other way (like inflammation or hyperactivity in children). However, it’s very hard to explain and convince my friends and family. Some people are even offended when I choose not to eat what they are eating because I know that it has MSG.

    I see that conflict here in the comments about this post too. I try to remind myself that everyone is just doing the best they can with the information and experiences available to them.

    1. @Sarah: You do realize that the second you sprinkle salt on a tomato or on red meat you’re essentially making MSG, right? MSG is just sodium + the byproduct of an amino acid. To claim that it’s neurotoxic is to say that every salad that has tomato and any dressing with sodium is neurotoxic.

  16. Yikes. I usually love your blog but as someone with a history of an eating disorder this post is everything I have be learning to UNDO. Eliminating these foods is not a way to make you “healthy” but being afraid of eating them is a sure bet to make you unhealthy, I can speak that from experience. I’m disappointed to see this here.

  17. This post is like a how-to guide to disordered eating. You have a large platform and should be conscious that posting triggering content like this could be incredibly harmful to your readers.

  18. I really do love your blog and follow you on IG Tina, but as a Registered Dietitian and a strong advocate of science, I can’t agree with any of this guest post. The writer provides no evidence, no references to any scientific articles or peer reviewed journals to support any of her claims. It’s just not sound advice or supported information.

    1. Also wanted to add that, avoiding these foods may work for her – but may not be appropriate or relevant to many other individuals! I think that’s very important to point out.

  19. I am a long time reader and this is a very irresponsible article. I respect that you personally have an auto immune disease to contend with and may need such restrictions, but really? We are a privileged society that can obsess so much about everything that we eat instead of whether we have food to eat.

    To paraphrase Michael Pollan, eat real food, mostly plants, not too much.

  20. Sometimes I see these lists and it’s insert my eye roll because I believe every different body may respond differently to foods. That being said, I 100% agree with this particular list. Dairy, Gluten, Soy, Sugar, and Processed foods are definitely inflammatory for most people if not all. Removing them cannot hurt anything and will likely improve your health! I love that Tina is combining her leap diet with the AIP protocol. For most of my clients who complete the LEAP program, even if they don’t have a reaction to dairy, gluten, soy, or sugar – I’m cautious and usually have them avoid them in the first phase because so many people struggle with them!

  21. I honestly thought this was going to be five FOODS not to eat. These are five food GROUPS. Very misleading and hard to read – basically stop eating almost everything and only eat meat, veggies, and some fruit.

  22. Hi Kristin and Tina,
    Aww, I am sorry there are so many negative comments here. Your intention is obviously well and good, but I do agree the post was a little to presumptuous and misleading . Perhaps next time, merely share your journey and what you did to heal yourself, rather than the rather radical approaches you suggest for everyone to “avoid.” It’s not so black & white. I just read an excellent bestseller by Dr. Peter Osborne, No Pain No Grain, and he, as a doctor, is very clear that his protocol is for those who live with chronic pain and/or autoimmune or other conditions, and gives a prologue and chapters on checklists on how he defines chronic pain, autoimmune conditions and, therefore, that buzz word inflammation. Perhaps you want to lean more into “propose, don’t impose” when recommending certain drastic health approaches.

  23. O-M-G!!!!.. A lot of negative responses!. I don’t think this post was meant for EVERYYYYONE to drop everything and DO exactly as what she posted regarding HER diet! I took it as, SHE had an issue, she dug into it, did RESEARCH on it and changed HER eating habits and now she is sharing. I took it as, THIS is something that helped HER!! Everyones body is different, yes, so not every diet plan works for everyone. This post was merely something to look into. With that said, I will be looking into her article and get educated through her article, or a doctor, or an author who specializes in these kind of stomach issues, to help ME out with my stomach issues..

  24. I cannot believe that any of these claims are based on actual scientific, peer-reviewed evidence. I looked at her website and credentials as well as her story. I think the bigger issue here is that we as a society have a poor understanding of anxiety and depression, and have poor insight into our own thoughts and feelings. Food alone does not cause anxiety and depression. Outside experiences, past trauma, and brain chemistry do. People with anxiety and depression often suffer a loss of control. A loss of control is inarguably an uncomfortable and difficult experience for anyone. Restricting your diet and eliminating foods appears to give back control, albeit in an unhealthy way, so it would make sense that people would find some relief once they start “taking their health into their own hands” find some relief- it is a placebo effect in a way. What would help most people is to take a good look at their life and identify stressors and face them with the help of a support system (family, friends, therapist, board certified medical doctor, PA, RN or NP). I hope everyone affected by this post (including its authors who truly appear to have good intentions) seeks the help they need and gets their life back. Signed, a registered nurse.

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