8 Classic Thanksgiving Foods That Can Subtly Cause Inflammation

by Carolyn de Lorenzo
John Moore/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Thanksgiving is right around the corner, if you can believe it. And given that the day is pretty much all about gathering around the dinner table, you might be starting to wax nostalgic about your favorite holiday meal. If there was ever a time to revel in pumpkin pie spice, this is it, folks. But you may not have realized that your favorite Thanksgiving foods can cause inflammation, which can potentially lead to other ill effects in the body.

“I hate to say it, but when you’re talking pro-inflammatory foods, stuffing made with bread, butter, and gravy/giblets is pretty high on the list,” Dr. Darria Long Gillespie, Harvard and Yale-trained ER doctor and author of Mom Hacks tells Bustle via email. "Since most of the bread used for stuffing is either white bread or highly processed wheat versions, they’ll quickly break down into simple sugars in the bloodstream," which can lead to inflammation.

It's also important to note that acute inflammation in the body can be a good thing, as it helps speed up wound healing and helps prevent infections, according to Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. That said, health problems can set in when inflammation becomes chronic, meaning that your immune system acts like it's in a constant state of response and attacks healthy tissue, rather than potential sources of infection, according to Harvard Health. Medical News Today reports that chronic inflammation may be the root cause of myriad health problems from digestive illnesses, arthritis, autoimmune conditions, and some cancers. By avoiding inflammation-causing foods when you can, you can help protect your body against many illnesses.

While a fear of inflammation should definitely not keep you from enjoying your holiday meal, if you are concerned about it, you have options. Here are eight inflammation-causing Thanksgiving foods that you might want to take note of before the festivities begin.


Cranberry Sauce

"While cranberries are a fruit, and therefore packed full of nutrients and antioxidants, ... cranberry sauce is loaded with sugar," Adrienne Klein, CTNC, and Thyroid Refresh resident nutritionist tells Bustle via email. "The canned version is full of high fructose corn syrup." According to Healthline, eating too much refined sugar is linked to chronic inflammation.


Green Bean Casserole

While green beans are a delicious addition to your Thanksgiving table, "green bean casserole is a trap of inflammatory ingredients," such as dairy and gluten, which are inflammatory for some people, says Klein. Instead, Klein recommends either steaming your green beans, or sautéing them.


Mashed Potatoes

"Potatoes are a great dish to have at Thanksgiving," Klein says. "The only downside is the milk and butter added to them to make mashed potatoes." According to the Arthritis Foundation, studies suggest that dairy foods can be inflammatory for some people.

Klein suggests that swapping out the milk and butter in your mashed potatoes with chicken or veggie broth and ghee can make a less inflammatory version of this classic dish. Roasted baby red potatoes are a great alternative, too.


Commercial Gravy

Some commercial gravies can be full of potentially inflammatory ingredients, like sodium, dairy, MSG, food additives, and gluten. If you're not making your own gravy at home this year, make sure to check your food labels before buying.


Pumpkin Pie

Traditional pumpkin pie is full of refined white sugar and refined grains, both of which are linked to chronic inflammation in the body, according to the Arthritis Foundation. A less inflammatory choice, says Klein, is homemade pumpkin pudding made with coconut milk and coconut whipped cream. You can also experiment with whole grain pie crusts, too.



Traditional eggnog is made with potentially inflammation-causing alcohol and refined sugar. The Mayo Clinic recommends warm vanilla chai drinks, or low-sugar, homemade eggnog as alternatives to the traditional sugar-laden version.


Sweet Tea

While not everyone includes sweet tea at Thanksgiving, if you do, Klein advises that traditional sweet tea is high in white sugar. Other options include making your own unsweetened tea, or you can swap refined sugar for honey or maple syrup.


Commercial Wines & Liquors

The Arthritis Foundation recommends alcohol in moderation in order to avoid its potentially inflammation-causing effects. Enjoying your favorite beverages in moderation is a totally valid choice.


Dinner Rolls

Refined grains, like those found in traditional dinner rolls, are processed by the body as simple sugars, and can cause inflammation-promoting insulin spikes, says Dr. Gillespie. The Arthritis Foundation also notes that refined carbohydrates have been linked to chronic inflammation . You can try swapping out your white flour rolls for a whole grain version, for a less-inflammatory option.


Klein notes that creating an anti-inflammatory Thanksgiving menu is actually pretty simple. Using whole grain pie crusts and rolls, cutting back on sugar, and roasting your veggies can help. But also, remember that Thanksgiving is literally just once a year, and if you do decide to enjoy some traditional treats, it truly isn't the end of the world. There's nothing wrong with enjoying your favorite foods at any time of year, but if you're looking to avoid potential sources of inflammation, this is a place to start.