It’s easy to get confused about which foods are healthy and which foods are not. Marketing has a way of making you think that even very inflammatory foods contain health-promoting properties when in reality they do not.
These 10 foods are the biggest "healthy" culprits that secretly cause inflammation. As with all advice, take this with a grain of salt—it's all about how something interacts with your individual body:
Despite their name, peanuts are not actually nuts at all—they're part of the legume family. For many, this may come as a surprise, but this popular post-workout snack may not actually be healthy and may be causing more inflammation than good.
In my practice, I recommend that most of my patients don't eat peanuts, for several reasons. For one, peanuts are one of the most common food allergens. But even if you don't think you have a peanut allergy, peanuts contain naturally occurring molds that can trigger an immune response, which would then result in inflammation. The common fungi found on peanuts are called aflatoxins. The National Cancer Institute has stated that exposure to aflatoxins can cause an increased risk of liver cancer, and in my practice, I've found a diet high in aflatoxins contribute to higher levels of inflammation. This is just one more reason to keep this commonly known "health food" out of your diet.
2. Seasoning mixes.
Who would have thought that something as simple as seasoning your food could lead to inflammation? While we may want to think that all seasoning is made with fresh herbs and spices, this is unfortunately not always the case.
We can run into issues with seasoning mixes when we use mixes containing added sugars and artificial ingredients and colors. Artificial colors are a major issue, and they are found in so many processed and packaged foods today. Since the use of these colors has increased, so has the presence of allergic and other immune reactive conditions. The artificial colors contain very small molecules, and thus the body’s immune system finds it challenging to defend the body from them. Artificial colors can bind with body proteins and can cause significant inflammation due to an immunological response and can even lead to things like leaky gut and autoimmune disorders.
You can easily purchase dried spices and herbs from the bulk section at health food stores and make your own seasoning mix.
Seitan is a wheat-based product that many vegans and vegetarians include in their diet as a way to boost their protein intake. This particular "fake meat" is texturized wheat protein, and it’s highly processed. It is so important that we keep processed foods out of our diet to keep inflammation at bay. The thing about processed foods is that they are man-made, so we aren’t born with the ability to break these foods down appropriately. Since seitan is wheat protein, it’s also not a good option for anyone who suffers from a gluten or wheat sensitivity.
Steer clear of this processed wheat product even if you don’t have a gluten sensitivity and choose whole foods such as nuts and seeds to boost your plant-based protein intake.
Grains—especially high-gluten ones, like barley—are another food that I often recommend my patients remove from their diet. Grains and gluten have been linked to intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and even autoimmune conditions by triggering an inflammatory immune response.
In my practice, I work with a lot of patients who have autoimmune thyroid disease, and gluten is one of the first things we work to remove from their diet. This is due to the inflammatory effect gluten can have on the body but also because gliadin, which is the protein found in gluten, resembles the thyroid. When you consume gluten, the immune system will attempt to attack this protein, but the same antibodies can also go after your thyroid at the same time.
Yogurt has been represented as being healthy for as long as I can remember, but there are a couple of red flags when it comes to yogurt. First and foremost, we need to talk about dairy when it comes to yogurt consumption. Many people are intolerant to dairy, so adding yogurt to the diet can cause inflammation if there is a dairy allergy or sensitivity present.
If you are consuming a nonorganic yogurt, there’s a good chance the milk found in the yogurt is filled with hormones, and many farmers use rBGH, which is a genetically engineered growth hormone that causes the cow to increase milk production. This is terrible for the cow as it can lead to infection, which would then be treated with antibiotics. Guess where these antibiotics wind up? You guessed it: in our milk supply.
Between the hormone and antibiotic exposure, that’s enough to keep us away from yogurt, but the sugar content is something else we need to touch upon.
If you are consuming a flavored yogurt, chances are you are getting an average of at least 10 grams of sugar in that one cup of yogurt, and some yogurts can pack in over 20 grams of sugar! The worst part is that the ones that are marketed as being the "healthiest" option because they are fat-free or "weight loss friendly: are often loaded with more sugar than some of the others to make up for the lost flavor when the fat is stripped from the product.
Don’t fall for the yogurt trick. If yogurt is a regular staple in your diet and you just couldn’t imagine living without it, make sure your yogurt is low in sugar or contains none at all, and make sure it comes from antibiotic-free cows (or coconut).
Although commonly referred to as a healthy sugar alternative, agave may not be healthy after all. Despite the fact that this sweetener may appear to be a more "natural" option, it’s still packed with sugar. In fact, agave is nearly 90 percent fructose. The issue with fructose is that we are consuming so much more of this "fruit sugar" than we did years ago. Unfortunately, the fructose we are getting in our diets is coming from refined foods, which can be detrimental to our liver.
The liver uses fructose to create fat. When the liver is inundated with fructose from foods rich in this sugar, the fat can then accumulate in the liver. When there is too much buildup, it can lead to nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, which is something we are seeing more and more today.
7. Granola bars.
Granola bars wind up on this list for a couple of reasons. For one, granola bars tend to be very high in sugar, whether this is cane sugar or even natural sweeteners such as agave or raw honey. No matter what type of sweetener is used, remember that too much of even a good thing is not healthy for us.
Secondly, granola bars also typically contain some type of grain, which we now know can be problematic for some people. Instead of snacking on granola bars, try making a homemade trail mix with some almonds, walnuts, raw cocoa nibs, and pumpkin seeds. You'll avoid the added sugar and unnecessary ingredients and fuel your body with healthy fat and plant-based protein at the same time.
You know that bowl of cereal you have been starting your day with? As it turns out, it could be causing inflammation. Similar to granola bars, cereal can be packed with sugar and grains, both of which can cause inflammation.
Did you know that EWG.org found that 92 percent of cold cereals in the United States come with added sugars? That means that each time you purchase a box of cereal (even if it's a so-called healthy kind), it’s almost guaranteed that you are going to start your day with excess sugar. Excess sugar consumption has been linked to inflammation, and studies have shown that there is a clear relationship between sugar consumption and having an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Granola is another major source of sugar, which you now know is a major trigger of both inflammation and even a potential cause of disease. Granola products marketed for children appear to be the worst, and they have been found to add more than 2½ teaspoons of sugar per serving! Keep in mind that most people will consume more than one serving in one sitting, so that’s adding in multiple teaspoons, maybe even tablespoons of sugar before your day even gets started.
This is a major problem because sugar is found in just about everything, and what appears to be small amounts adds up quickly, as does the inflammatory effects it has on the body.
10. Bottled juices.
You know those bottled green or fruits juices and smoothies you find at stores that have beautiful labels and look "natural" and "healthy"? Unfortunately, we need to do a little detective work to truly decide if these drinks really are a health food or not, and more times than not if it’s found in a bottle at the grocery store there are going to be some added ingredients and some amount of added sugar in that bottle.
Freshly pressed juice that you make at home is going to be better than something you can buy in the bottle. Making it at home allows you to dictate what goes into the juice as well as how much fruit versus vegetables you add to it. Keep in mind that you want to add more veggies than you do fruit to keep the sugar content down.
Now onto those store-bought bottles. The problem with many of these products is that in order for them to last for a period of time on the shelves, they have to go through a pasteurization process. This process is done at a very high heat to kill off microorganisms, but this process also destroys all of the enzymes present in the juice or smoothie, meaning it kills the good with the bad. The antioxidants will be significantly reduced, and fiber is lost—leaving you with a bottle of sugar.
With some products, you also run the risk of ingesting some fruits and vegetables that have been sprayed with pesticides, and you may be consuming GMO ingredients. The bottom line here is to stick to homemade juices and smoothies to steer clear of adding anything artificial to your diet that could potentially cause inflammation and to keep your sugar intake low.
The take-home message here when it comes to these foods is that what may appear healthy at first isn’t always the best option. To keep inflammation at bay, I always encourage my patients to stick to a whole-foods diet with little to no packaged food items to avoid any added ingredients and to keep their sugar intake to a minimum.
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