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 win all the points, smartypants.
"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.