Pop quiz: What do minor aches and pains, pimples, and heart disease all have in common (other than being things we could happily live without)?
If you said inflammation, you’re right on the money.
“Inflammation is a natural response to injury or infection, which causes the body to pump out compounds that help promote healing,” says Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, author of the book From Junk Food to Joy Food: All The Foods You Love To Eat… Only Better. “It’s a crucial part of the body’s defense system. Once the injury or illness is resolved, the body returns to a normal state. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to work.”
But when the body does not bounce back, that’s a signal that something is amiss. “Unfortunately, many of us experience chronic inflammation because of our diets, environmental triggers, or other factors,” Bauer explains. “This basically means that the response persists in the form of low-grade inflammation for months or even years, which, not surprisingly, can cause havoc inside the body.”
Chronic inflammation can lead to weight gain as well as serious health problems, such as rheumatoid arthritis, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Now here’s the good news — you can extinguish the fire that’s been ignited in your system by limiting or cutting certain pro-inflammatory foods from your diet. Here, Bauer shares her top five picks and offers healthier substitutions for each.
“Studies show sugary beverages like soda are associated with a spike in inflammatory compounds, like C-reactive protein (CRP), which appears to be a factor in heart disease,” Bauer says. “And check out this staggering statistic: A soda a day can increase the risk for heart disease by 20 percent, according to one  study.”
Inflammation Rx: Instead of soda, sip on some water, tea, or coffee – “just go easy on the sugar!” Bauer adds. “But if you’re looking for a fizzy fix with built-in anti-inflammatory compounds to ease aches and pains, try my healthy Cherry Soda.” Why cherries? A March 2015 article in Food Technology noted the many reported health benefits of eating tart cherries, which include anti-inflammation in cases of arthritis and gout, better sleep, and better sports-injury recovery.
Refined carbs found in “white foods” are highly processed and stripped of their nutrients. Eating them can cause blood sugar levels to spike, which has been associated with an increase in inflammatory proteins called cytokines. “As for a regular white bagel, it is equivalent to four slices of white bread — sometimes even more!” Bauer says.
Inflammation Rx: Instead of a bagel full of refined carbs, bite into one or two slices of whole-grain toast. It’s smaller in size, lower in calories and carbs, and contains fiber, which helps control insulin levels, makes you feel fuller longer, lowers cholesterol levels, and normalizes bowel movements. In fact, a small 2012 study published in The Journal of Nutrition found that a diet rich in slowly digested (aka high-fiber) carbs greatly reduced markers of inflammation associated with chronic disease in overweight and obese adults.
3.Processed and Red Meat
Between the refined and artificial ingredients in processed meat(such as lunch meat, bacon, sausage, and hot dogs) and the high levels of saturated fat in most red meat, eating either or both types has been linked to higher levels of CRP and other biomarkers of inflammation.
Inflammation Rx: Instead of processed and red meats, go forfish and vegetable proteins (like edamame, beans, and lentils) because “omega-3 fats in certain fish, like salmon and sardines, as well as the antioxidants and phytochemicals in vegetable protein sources help protect against inflammation,” Bauer says. “In one  study from Spain, people who consumed mostly animal proteins on a low-calorie diet had higher levels of inflammatory compounds in their blood than those who consumed fish or plant sources of protein.”
“French fries, fried chicken, fried shrimp — these are foods we love, but they don’t necessarily love us back,” Bauer asys. “That’s because they have been shown to contain advanced glycation end products (AGEs), toxins that trigger inflammation in the body.” It’s true — 2014 research published in Nutrition Review concluded that limiting AGE intake may lead to a decrease in inflammation and chronic diseases.
Inflammation Rx: Instead of eating fried foods, oven-baked versions of your favorite foods are great substitutes. Not sure where to start? Try Bauer’s Sweet Potato Fries and Crispy Chicken Tenders recipes, both of which are free of omega 6-rich and pro-inflammatory polyunsaturated fats (think corn, soybean, sunflower, canola, safflower, and mixed vegetable oils). “You can still enjoy the same crunchy, fried feel, just without all the junk!”
Cookies, cupcakes, doughnuts, and pastries may be tempting, but they can also come with a number of not-so-sweet side effects, including inflammation and weight gain. “These picks pack a trifecta of inflammatory triggers: trans fat, refined carbs, and sugar,” Bauer says.
Inflammation Rx: You don’t have to forego baked goods altogether, just look for shorter, decipherable lists of ingredients, or, even better, make your own! Bauer’s better-for-you recipes include Feel-Good Mini Muffins (which contain four anti-inflammatory ingredients — turmeric, cherries, olive oil, and chia seeds), Soft-Baked Chocolate-Cherry Oatmeal Cookies (“a combo of dark chocolate chips and sweet cherries provides a double-shot of antioxidants”) and Cinna-yums (her healthy version of the 900+-calorie Cinnabon made with real cinnamon, an antioxidant spice which has been shown to reduce triglycerides and oxidative stress). Better get baking!