These Popular Drinks Are Contributing to Chronic Inflammation, According to Dietitians

Photo: Stocksy / Nicole Morrison
It seems like everywhere you turn in this day and age, someone is talking about the dangers and threats of dreaded and nebulous "inflammation." The truth is that not everything causes inflammation, and some of this is definitely rooted in anti-inflammatory diet myths. There are some things that do cause inflammation though and we got some experts to break down some of the top inflammatory drinks on the market and likely in your diet. Don't worry—you don't need to entirely cut them out, but awareness about what inflammation is and how it is caused can be good for your overall well-being.

Experts In This Article
  • Brett Sorel, MS, RD, LDN, Brett Sorel, MS, RDN, LDN graduated Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Florida and at the top of her class with a Master’s Degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from Florida International University. Prior to...
  • Brigid Titgemeier, RD, RDN, registered dietician nutritionist
  • Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, registered dietitian and nationally-recognized food, nutrition, and wellness expert with a private nutrition counseling practice

Inflammation at base line is a normal thing to occur in the body (even beneficial), and taking small, daily steps toward lowering your inflammation levels– is good for you and your overall well-being. What causes inflammation is a huge grey area where a lot of misinformation runs rampant. It makes it hard to discern the granules of truth about what causes inflammation, but don't worry; we're going to dive into the area of inflammatory drinks and get you the best info possible.

One such arena that you have the agency to do this is inflammation is associated with diet. That's right, foods that cause inflammation can be wreaking havoc on your baseline level of inflammatory response and causing a hosting of unwanted side effects.

What is inflammation?

"Inflammation is a healthy part of the immune response that helps protect the body during acute injury or infection," says functional medicine registered dietitian Brigid Titgemeier, RD. Typically this process turns itself off, but when the immune system fails to regulate and stop the inflammation cycle, it can lead to chronic inflammation. "Ongoing exposure to inflammatory triggers, such as a diet high in added sugar and ultra-processed foods, leads to an active low grade, chronic inflammatory response." Chronic inflammation has been shown to be one of the largest contributors to nearly every chronic and autoimmune disease.

This leads us to wonder what popular beverages we sip that can be contributing to chronic inflammation. We've gathered six of the most inflammatory drinks according to dietitians and why we should only consume them in moderation. Check out the following inflammation-fighting tips that are rooted in facts and not fads.

What are the most common causes of chronic inflammation?

When it comes to the question of what foods cause inflammation, it's more like the way a bucket can fill up slowly with drips of water. Over time, many things can come together to raise your level of inflammatory response in the body. According to Titgemeier, regular consumption of ultra-processed foods added sugars, and hydrogenated oils, regular alcohol consumption, lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle, and poor stress management are all major triggers.

Chronic inflammation can cause DNA damage and lead to cancer, along with science-backed symptoms like body pain, frequent infections, depression, acid reflux, and a whole lot more. Unlike many common ailments, however, chronic inflammation can be reduced or even reversed through changes in diet and lifestyle.

"Some changes include avoiding known food allergens and sensitivities, reducing your intake of sugar and processed foods, adopting an anti-inflammatory pattern of eating, exercising, and practicing stress reduction techniques," says Brett Sorel, MS, RDN, LDN. "A great place to start is by becoming more conscious about the inflammatory drinks you consume on a daily basis. There are many ingredients in popular beverages that can cause chronic inflammation when consumed regularly, including refined sugars, artificial dyes and sweeteners, and high fructose corn syrup."

What foods and drinks cause inflammation?

As we covered, certain foods and drinks do cause inflammation in the body because of their effects on blood sugar or other bodily processes that initiate an inflammatory response. Some of the following are the biggest culprits.

1. Processed and fried foods

These foods are high in certain fats and can cause inflammation in the body. This doesn't mean you can never enjoy these foods, but ultimately lower amounts correlate with lower inflammation.

2. Sugary drinks

Soda, sports drinks, and other sugary beverages can lead to inflammation because of the spike in blood sugar. They can also impact your gut microbiome, according to some studies.

3. Red meat

Eating too much red meat has been linked to chronic inflammation in the body. Although red meat has a lot of great minerals, there is evidence that too much can be inflammatory for some people.

4. Alcohol

Heavy drinking can cause inflammation in the liver and other parts of the body because it's a toxin and the way it's metabolized.

If you're racking your brain right now with questions like "does alcohol cause inflammation?" "Does coffee cause inflammation?" "Does my beloved midday snack of hot Cheetos cause inflammation?" Don't fret. This doesn't mean you have to part with these foods entirely or swear on your life to pour them down the drain. Awareness of the amount of inflammatory drinks you consume can help you identify any areas you might want to cut back.

Additionally, not everyone is the same. Some folks really react badly to coffee, while others cannot deal with dairy-based milk. It's all about exploring what works for you when it comes to foods that cause inflammation.

FAQs About Inflammatory Drinks

Here's a look at the most popular inflammatory drinks that can contribute to chronic inflammation and what to guzzle instead.

Does soda cause inflammation?

You probably know that regular soda pop isn't for you, but swapping for diet also isn't doing you any favors. "Sodas are highly inflammatory drinks due to the presence of high amounts of refined sugar, high fructose corn syrup, and dyes," says Sorel. "Unfortunately, diet soda isn't any better because it replaces the sugars with artificial sweeteners, which can be just as inflammatory. In fact, a study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has linked drinking one soda per day to increased levels of C-RP—a marker of inflammation—as well as higher cholesterol and insulin resistance."

Another option is this Cinnamon Lemon Ginger Tea recipe. "If you want flavor and bubbles, then put the tea in your refrigerator to let cool and transfer to a seltzer bottle," adds Titgemeier.

Is an artificial sweetener like aspartame bad for you?

Although diet soda pop might give the false illusion of being "healthy," dietitians warn about the possible link between aspartame and inflammation. "They cut out added sugar at the moment, but over time, studies have suggested that they may actually undermine your body's insulin response which can lead to a higher risk of type 2 diabetes," registered dietitian Samantha Cassetty, MS, RD, previously told Well+Good.

Can stevia cause inflammation, too?

Stevia, which comes from the stevia plant, has fewer calories than regular sugar and can be a good alternative for certain diets. However, registered dietitian Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RD, says that some stevia brands might chemically process the product and mix it with sugar alcohol, which can lead to diarrhea and indigestion. When picking the best natural sweetener, Beckerman says to look out for the ones with inulin, a prebiotic fiber that can help with digestion.

Does coffee cause inflammation?

Some coffee shop drinks have as much as 50 grams of sugar—talk about a post-caffeine crash. "While some of that is natural sugar from milk, I'd say there are at least eight to nine teaspoons of added sugar in there. That's more than a day's worth, given that we should try to have no more than six teaspoons per day," says Samantha Cassetty, RD, advisor to Performance Kitchen. "For daily coffee drinking, add a splash of vanilla extract and a dash of cinnamon instead of sugar. These ingredients remind you of dessert foods, so they trick your taste buds into requiring less sugar."

Do energy drinks cause inflammation?

Energy drinks are often filled with artificial colors and high amounts of sugar, which, when regularly consumed, can lead to chronic inflammation. "A high intake of refined sugar can also suppress the immune system and is linked to type 2 diabetes," says Sorel. "Those that say 'no sugar added' often have artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose, which are both inflammatory." Instead, he recommends opting for coconut water. "Read the ingredient labels and look for brands that are 100 percent all-natural and don't contain any added sugars, such as Zico."

Does alcohol cause inflammation?

You probably already know that alcohol is not great for your liver, mental clarity, or sleep quality, but according to Sorel, regular consumption can also lead to chronic inflammation. But does that mean happy hour is completely out of the question? Yes and no.

Can wine cause inflammation, too?

If you really want a boozy drink, he recommends red wine due to the presence of antioxidants, like resveratrol, which can lower inflammation (however, it's still best to be consumed in moderation). "It's always best to stick with wines that are free of any sweeteners. And when it comes to liquor and cocktails, it would be ideal to avoid or limit mixers that contain added sugar—instead, opt for tequila or vodka mixed with soda water and fresh lime."

What about the other booze?

Low-sugar hard kombuchas and spiked seltzers are also better options for those looking to lower their sugar intake from cocktails. "Kombucha is tea that is naturally fermented and contains beneficial yeast and probiotic bacteria that can help improve gut health," says Sorel. "Juneshine kombucha, for one, comes without high amounts of sugar, pesticides, or artificial colors, and it contains all of the probiotic benefits."

That being said, keep in mind that the relationship between alcohol and gut health are closely intertwined. Plus, alcohol should never be perceived as a healthy food either. Also, while fermented drinks like kombucha offer gut health benefits, commercial brands often contain a large amount of sugar, so not all kombuchas are created equally. "Always look for ones low in sugar—meaning less than five grams per serving—or make your own," says Titgemeier.

Studies have also shown that liquor can cause muscle inflammation and impact fitness and performance. This includes decreased motor coordination, impaired balance, and delayed reaction, just to name a few. Additionally, alcohol in the body can also hinder lactate metabolism, which can cause symptoms like fatigue, decreased power, and muscle performance.

Does beer also cause inflammation?

"As much fun as alcohol may be, it does have its share of negative health effects, especially for the stomach and the esophagus," Niket Sonpal, MD, a New York-based internist and gastroenterologist, previously told Well+Good when it comes to alcohol and gut health. This includes beer, too. Large quantities of alcohol can lead to gastritis, or stomach inflammation, which causes heartburn, acid reflux, and sometimes long-term esophageal damage, Dr. Sonpal explains.

Does fruit juice cause inflammation?

"While fruit contains antioxidants that can help fight against free radicals and lower overall inflammation when juiced, it will cause a significant blood sugar spike that can also increase inflammatory cytokine production," says Titgemeier. This is especially true, she says, if consumed on an empty stomach. "Drinking orange juice or a cold-pressed juice that has apple, pineapple, and greens compared to physically eating the whole fruit causes a larger blood sugar spike because juicing strips the fruit of fiber. Fiber helps slow down glucose absorption, which helps to decrease post-meal inflammation."

Moreover, she says that many juices contain an average of 20-plus grams of naturally-occurring sugars per serving, primarily from fructose, which is associated with a pro-inflammatory response.

Instead, Titgemeier recommends swapping in an anti-inflammatory, blood-sugar-balancing protein smoothie that includes protein powder, nuts and seeds, non-starchy vegetables, and one serving of fruit (one medium size fruit or ¾ cup berries).

Does oat milk cause inflammation?

Oat milk is a very popular dairy-free milk alternative, but many brands are not as nutritious as many people would like to believe. Oat milk can sometimes cause a spike in your blood sugar which is associated with inflammation. "Even if there's no sugar added to oat milk, it still contains about seven grams of sugar per cup because of the enzymatic breakdown of the oat starch," she adds. It's a good idea to read nutrition labels to make sure you're purchasing one of the many low-sugar oat milk options on the market if you want lower levels of sugar and inflammation as a result.

What are some anti-inflammatory drinks?

While consuming any of these occasionally in moderation is not likely to drive chronic inflammation, regular consumption over time can certainly contribute. This is why it behooves everyone to try to steer clear of drinks and products that contain high amounts of refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and artificial ingredients and opt for healthier anti-inflammatory drinks instead. "This can go a long way in helping you reduce chronic inflammation and improving your health overall," says Sorel. So, how about we sip on these healthy iced tea recipes or turmeric, ginger, and apple smoothie filled with antioxidants that reduce inflammation? And, of course, it wouldn't be complete without these best anti-inflammatory foods. Bye-bye, inflammation!

While some drinks are inflammatory, the good news is that there are others that counteract that inflammatory response. Some of the best options include:

Green tea: Contains anti-inflammatory compounds called catechins, which can help reduce inflammation by calming the immune system's release of disease-fighting cells (that can be inflammatory)

Water: Staying hydrated is crucial for reducing inflammation in the body. Drinking plenty of water can help flush out toxins and keep your body functioning properly.

Ginger tea: Ginger contains compounds called gingerols and shogaols, which have been shown to have anti-inflammatory properties.

Tart cherry juice: Tart cherries contain compounds called anthocyanins, which have been shown to reduce inflammation in the body. The juice can also reduce muscle pain associated with muscle pain.

Overall, it's great that you're learning more about what you want to include in your diet and how to fight inflammation. There's no perfect way to eat in order to reduce inflammation because everyone's different, and your diet should reflect a number of needs you have.

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