Breakfast is your first opportunity of the day to feed your body foods that'll help fight inflammation. But, all too often, we pile our breakfast plates with stuff that can cause an inflammatory response.
While short-term, acute inflammation is a helpful tool that triggers the body's defenses to attack foreign invaders (like to fend off the common cold or heal a wound), chronic inflammation is a larger problem, Leslie Langevin, RD, author of The Anti-Inflammatory Kitchen Cookbook and co-owner of Whole Health Nutrition, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
Chronic inflammation happens when the immune system becomes overactive to protect itself from threats (which can result from an inflammatory diet, among other things), and the body secretes elevated levels of inflammatory molecules like cytokines, Langevin explains. But in the long term, this constant state of inflammation can do major damage to the body.
Indeed, persistent inflammation is linked to weight gain, GI issues, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, allergies, arthritis and other autoimmune conditions, as well as chronic pain and fatigue, Langevin says.
Start your day off right by avoiding these seven unhealthy breakfast foods that cause inflammation.
From muffins to doughnuts to pastries, baked goods and breakfast go way back, but these a.m. sweets may be sabotaging your overall health. That's because they're notoriously high in refined carbohydrates and sugar, which will spike your blood sugar and produce an inflammatory response, Langevin says.
Plus, baked goods often use butter or vegetable oils that contain more saturated fats or omega-6 fats, which are also pro-inflammatory when eaten in excess, she adds.
Eating these high-fat, high-sugar confectionaries for breakfast on the regular can lead to weight gain. And having a greater level of fat or adipose tissue in the body is a risk factor for even more inflammation because people who are overweight tend to secrete more inflammatory molecules, Langevin says.
If you want to enjoy a muffin or doughnut on occasion, bake your own healthier, less inflammatory versions. For starters, replace at least half the white flour in a recipe with a whole-grain variety like oat or whole-wheat flour. You can also add ground flax for more omega-3s and fiber, incorporate fruit and use extra-light olive oil.
2. Waffles and Pancakes
Waffles and pancakes are staple breakfast fare, but, like baked goods, they're usually made with white flour. This means they're stuffed with refined carbohydrates and have a high glycemic index, which will increase inflammation, Langevin says.
Remember, "foods high in sugar and processed refined carbohydrates can increase blood sugar levels, which may lead to more inflammation," Langevin says. Consequently, the body prefers lower glycemic foods (those that spike the blood sugar less).
To help the body control blood sugar spikes and reduce inflammation, try adding more fiber, plant protein and antioxidants to each meal, Langevin says. For instance, to make more nutritious waffles and pancakes, substitute fiber-rich oat flour or whole-wheat flour for white flour, toss in high-protein chia seeds, use heart-healthy extra-light olive oil and add antioxidant-rich blueberries.
"A little maple syrup is even OK on top because it's a lower glycemic sweetener," Langevin adds.
Buttery, flaky and doughy, croissants are the consummate breakfast food. Unfortunately, they're swimming in saturated fats, which are bad for inflammation.
Indeed, a diet heavy in saturated fats can raise your cholesterol, potentially resulting in clogged arteries, per Harvard Health Publishing. (To avoid this, try limiting your saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of your daily calories.)
Plus, these puff pastries possess processed, refined carbohydrates, which we already know can increase blood sugar levels and promote an inflammatory response.
The takeaway: "Croissants are a fun food that should be enjoyed on the rare occasion," Langevin says.
4. Bacon and Sausage
Sure, they taste good, but breakfast meats like bacon and sausage supply little to no benefits for your body. In fact, these pro-inflammatory processed foods, which are high in saturated fat, might hurt your health in the long term.
Case in point: An April 2016 meta-analysis in Public Health Nutrition observed that people who ate more red meat and processed meat had a greater risk of death related to cardiovascular problems and cancer. And research has demonstrated that these diseases, among others, are connected to chronic inflammation.
If you're a bacon lover or a stickler for sausage, Langevin recommends trying a plant-based breakfast meat alternative. Just make sure you pick a brand that contains whole-food ingredients and is low in sodium.
5. Blended Coffees
Blended coffees are often crammed with sugar, which sets off inflammation in your body, Langevin says. That's because when you ingest excessive sugar, your body releases insulin, attempting to store the surplus sugar in your fat cells, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
But here's the problem: If you take in too much sugar too often, it may eventually cause weight gain and/or insulin resistance, which may lead to more serious metabolic conditions.
Instead, "try to optimize your coffee with a plant-based milk that is unsweetened or add a little maple syrup or stevia as your sweetener to help decrease blood sugar spikes," Langevin says. A drop of vanilla extract or a sprinkle of cinnamon are both excellent ways to enhance flavor without sugar.
6. Some Types of Dairy
From a glass of milk to cheese or yogurt and beyond, dairy covers a wide spectrum of foods you might find on the breakfast table. Previous studies have demonstrated that dairy can increase inflammation, Langevin says, adding, "this correlation is thought to be related to a leaky gut component."
And if you're lactose intolerant, you're probably already familiar with your gut's inflamed response to dairy (think: gas, diarrhea and bloating).
But, while full-fat dairy products are high in saturated fats and deemed pro-inflammatory, other fatty acids in dairy might boast benefits for your health, according to the Arthritis Foundation. For example, research has shown that eating yogurt is associated with a reduction in inflammation and insulin resistance and a lowered risk of type 2 diabetes. While more studies are still needed, researchers hypothesize that the probiotics in yogurt are the source of its anti-inflammatory effect.
Similarly, a September 2020 systematic review in Journal of the American College of Nutrition concluded that dairy and dairy proteins exhibited neutral to beneficial effects on inflammatory biomarkers.
Still, since dairy products vary greatly, it's unclear which components of these foods can help (or cause) inflammation or how they might affect different people, per the Arthritis Foundation.
When it comes to dairy, your best bet is to consume in moderation. “Go easy on the butter and possibly try substituting plant milks for dairy milks,” Langevin says. “We do know that plant-based diets are effective for reducing inflammation, so limiting your animal products can help towards that as well.”
7. Home Fries
"Home fries are a good treat every now and then, but white potatoes are high on the glycemic index, and, when they are fried in vegetable oil, this can increase inflammation," Langevin says,
Higher levels of inflammation can also increase stress hormones, which makes it harder to lose weight, she adds. Adding insult to injury, inflammation can also cause leptin resistance, which occurs when your body isn't able to listen to its fullness cues as accurately, causing you to eat more, Langevin explains.
For a healthier side of anti-inflammatory home fries, mix white potatoes with sweet potatoes and sauté in a pan of extra-light olive oil or avocado oil over medium heat with garlic and herbs.
Anti-Inflammatory Breakfasts to Eat Instead
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The truth about fats: the good, the bad, and the in-between.”
- Public Health Nutrition: “Red and processed meat consumption and mortality: dose-response meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.”
- Cleveland Clinic: “5 Foods That Can Cause Inflammation.”
- Journal of the American College of Nutrition: “The Effects of Dairy Product and Dairy Protein Intake on Inflammation: A Systematic Review of the Literature.”
- Arthritis Foundation: “Is Dairy Arthritis-Friendly?”