Food and Nutrition

6 Popular Drinks That Dietitians Say Could Be Contributing To Chronic Inflammation

Photo: Stocksy/Neal Pritchard
For eons, inflammation in the body was exclusively associated with reactions to foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. Today, thanks to a bounty of science-backed research on the causes and implications of inflammation, we know that inflammation is associated with diet more so than anything else.

“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.

What are the most common causes of chronic inflammation?

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 is serious; this isn’t just a matter of feeling gassy or bloated. 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."

6 inflammatory drinks RDs recommend sipping in moderation

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

1. Soda.

You probably know that regular soda 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.”

He recommends reaching for sparkling water with fresh-squeezed citrus instead. “If that’s not cutting it and you’re really craving that soda, Zevia is a brand that is non-GMO and uses stevia as a natural sweetener.” 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 Sodastream bottle,” adds Titgemeier.

2. Coffee shop concoctions.

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.”

3. Energy drinks.

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.”

4. Alcohol.

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. 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.”

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 alcohol is still alcohol, and should never be perceived as a health food. 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.

5. Fruit Juice.

“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).

Find an herbalist's favorite protein smoothie recipe here:

6. Oat Milk.

Oat milk is a very popular dairy-free milk alternative, but many brands are not as nutritious as many people would like to believe. “Many of our clients wear Continuous Glucose Monitors (CGMs) to track their blood sugar levels continuously and we have seen a trend in blood sugar spikes that happen soon after drinking oat milk,” says Titgemeier. “Even if there’s no sugar added to oat milk, it still contains about seven grams of sugar per one cup because of the enzymatic breakdown of the oat starch. So if you’re drinking an oat milk latte daily, it may drive an inflammatory process and likely make you very tired. For a creamy dairy-free alternative that will not spike your blood sugar levels, switch to unsweetened soy, pea, or cashew milk instead.” Also, always read nutrition labels to make sure you're purchasing one of the many low sugar oat milk options on the market.

Bottom Line

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 alternatives instead. “This can go a long way in helping you reduce chronic inflammation and improving your health overall,” says Sorel.

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