Did you know that your lymphatic system plays a crucial role in your health and immunity? And that what you eat directly impacts its function? In this post we’ll explore the worst foods for a healthy lymphatic system and what to eat instead.
As a Registered Dietitian who was diagnosed with lymphoma (cancer of the lymphatic system), I care deeply about enhancing lymphatic function. In fact, you could say I’m a bit obsessed!
So are you ready to join me on a deep dive into the world of lymphatic system health? Let’s go!
Short on time? Don’t leave now! Scroll to the bottom for health hacks you can implement TODAY.
What is the Lymphatic System? (And Why You Should Care)
Your lymphatic system is like a highway in your body that carries lymph fluid. This clear fluid is made up of waste products, toxins, and excess fluid that your body doesn’t need.
It works hand-in-hand with your circulatory system to maintain fluid balance in the body and support immune function. It also helps your body absorb and transport fats and fat-soluble vitamins from your digestive system into your bloodstream.
As your lymph travels along this highway of lymph vessels, it stops at small structures called lymph nodes. These nodes act as filters, trapping and removing harmful substances like germs or toxins from the lymph.
This intricate system relies on muscle contractions, deep breathing, and movement to circulate lymphatic fluid. When the system becomes blocked or sluggish, it can cause swelling, inflammation, and a higher risk of infection.
It’s super important to keep your lymphatic system healthy for so many reasons!
Key Lymphatic System Functions
Clearly, maintaining a healthy lymphatic system is a worthy goal for everyone. But it is especially important for those suffering from lymphedema.
What is Lymphedema?
Lymphedema is a condition that causes swelling in the arms or legs due to excess fluid buildup in the lymphatic system (1). It can be both painful and unsightly.
While there are many factors that can cause lymphedema, cancer treatment, such as surgery or radiation therapy, is a common contributor.
Maintaining a healthy lymphatic system is key in preventing and managing this condition. So let’s kick off our discussion of the worst foods for your lymphatic system!
Worst Foods for Your Lymphatic System
If you’re looking to support your lymphatic system, it’s important to know which foods can be harmful. In this quick guide, I’ll share some of the worst foods for your lymphatic system that you may want to avoid.
These foods can slow down lymphatic flow and lead to a build-up of toxins in your body. As you can imagine, this is not desirable!
Limit or avoid these foods to keep your lymphatic system in tip-top shape.
Processed and Packaged Foods
Do you frequently turn to processed foods as a convenient and quick meal option? If so, you are not alone! With our busy modern-day lifestyles, convenience foods have become a go-to for many.
However, processed foods, such as fast food, frozen meals, and packaged snacks, are notorious for their high levels of unhealthy fats, sodium, sugar, and preservatives.
Even seemingly healthy options like protein bars and granola can be highly processed and contain added sugars and artificial flavors.
These foods may put a strain on your lymphatic system, as they contain ingredients that disrupt the natural detoxification process of lymph.
Have you ever noticed that fried foods can make you feel sluggish and uncomfortable? Well, it turns out that those tasty fried treats might be doing more harm than good.
Those deliciously crispy snacks are usually cooked in unhealthy oils that contain trans and saturated fats. These unhealthy fats cause inflammation and oxidative stress in your body, which can overwhelm your lymphatic system.
And if you eat fried foods regularly, those excess unhealthy fats may start to accumulate in your body and clog up your lymphatic vessels. This can really impair your lymphatic system’s ability to function properly (4).
Fried foods also contribute to weight gain, adding more strain on the lymphatic system (5).
So, while indulging in some fried foods occasionally may not cause significant harm, consuming them regularly can negatively impact your lymphatic system.
We all know how tempting those sugary treats can be, right? I mean, who can resist a delicious slice of cake or a bowl of ice cream?
But here’s the thing – high-sugar foods can actually take a toll on your lymphatic system!
When you consume high-sugar foods, like candies, soft drinks, or pastries, your blood glucose levels can skyrocket. This triggers an inflammatory response which can keep your lymphatic system from working optimally.
Additionally, high-sugar foods are often full of empty calories, meaning they provide little to no essential nutrients. This leads to weight gain, which can strain your lymphatic system, making it difficult to clear waste from your body.
Pro-tip: Look out for “healthy” foods with hidden sugars, like breakfast cereals and energy drinks.
You might be familiar with processed meats. These meats have undergone some kind of modification to improve their flavor, texture, or shelf life. Think sausages, hot dogs, bacon, and deli meats.
But did you know that these tasty treats are actually pretty unhealthy?
That’s because processed meats have lots of sodium, nitrates, and unhealthy fats that cause inflammation and damage lymphatic vessels. That can really mess up how your lymphatic system works!
Processed meats also lack fiber and nutrients, and they can make us gain weight. Being overweight puts stress on our lymphatic system and can make it even harder for it to work properly.
Plus, eating too many processed meats has been linked to serious health issues like heart disease and cancer. That’s not good news for our lymphatic system, which may struggle even more.
So as much as you may love your bacon and deli sandwiches, it’s important to keep your processed meat intake in check for the sake of your health!
Conventional red meat is often high in saturated fats, which can contribute to congestion in the lymphatic system.
It may also contain toxins and pesticides that can be harmful to our lymphatic system (6).
Animals raised conventionally are often treated with antibiotics and growth hormones, which can remain in their meat and be ingested.
Additionally, conventional meat may be exposed to pesticides and other chemicals through the feed that the animals consume. These toxins can be harmful to your lymphatic system and overall health.
Not great news, right?
But there’s a glimmer of hope! Pasture-raised red meat generally contains fewer saturated fats and more nutrients. This makes it a healthier option for our lymphatic system.
But hold on just a sec- that doesn’t mean you should start eating all the pasture-raised red meat you can find! It’s still important to balance your intake of red meat with plenty of fruits and vegetables to support overall lymphatic health.
While it might be easy to reach for high-sodium snacks, doing so can actually impair your lymphatic health. It’s true!
When you consume high-sodium foods, like canned soups, chips, and processed snacks, you may retain excess water. This can strain your lymphatic system, keeping it from doing its job well.
So if you’re looking to take care of your lymphatic system, it’s a good idea to minimize salt intake and opt for whole, unprocessed foods as often as possible.
It turns out that excessive alcohol consumption can harm your lymphatic system. Say it isn’t so!
Unfortunately, alcohol slows down your lymphatic function by causing dehydration and overloading your liver with toxins. Yikes!
On top of that, alcohol can create inflammation in your body, including within your lymphatic system.
If you drink alcohol, be sure to consume it in moderation- your lymphatic system will thank you for it!
Do you find yourself reaching for that second (or third) cup of coffee to get through the day? While caffeine may give you a quick boost of energy, it can actually harm your lymphatic system if you overdo it.
Here’s why: caffeine acts as a diuretic, which means it’s dehydrating and reduces lymphatic function. Not great news, right?
But wait, there’s more! When you consume too much caffeine, it can increase stress hormones levels, which negatively impacts your lymphatic system. Yikes!
Try to moderate caffeine intake and stay hydrated for lymph’s sake! This means drinking plenty of water throughout the day to counteract the dehydrating effects of caffeine.
Pro-tip: If you’re looking for a healthier alternative to coffee, consider green tea or herbal tea. These not only provide a gentler caffeine boost, but they also come with added health benefits.
Artificial sweeteners, like the ones in diet soda and sugar-free foods, can actually harm your lymphatic system. It might be surprising, but it’s true!
When you consume artificial sweeteners, your body doesn’t process them in the same way as regular sugar. This can cause imbalances in your gut microbiome (the healthy bacteria that live in your gut), which negatively impacts your lymphatic system.
Plus, many artificial sweeteners are high in sodium, which as we know, can cause water retention and put a strain on your lymphatic system.
In fact, some studies have shown that consuming too much artificial sweetener can increase the risk of lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system (7).
So if you want to keep your lymphatic system functioning properly, be mindful of how much artificial sweetener you’re consuming.
Pro-tip: Opt for natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup instead, and try to limit your intake of diet soda and other artificially sweetened products. Low calorie natural sweeteners like monk fruit and stevia are also good options!
So, you know those yummy but not-so-healthy foods like doughnuts, cookies, or some types of margarine? Well, those usually contain trans fats, and they’re not great for you.
Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to oils to make them last longer. Found in margarine, processed foods, salad dressings, and fried foods, they can wreak havoc on your lymphatic system.
When you eat foods with trans fats, it can raise your bad cholesterol levels and lower your good cholesterol levels. This can cause inflammation and damage your lymphatic vessels, making it harder for your lymphatic system to work properly.
Not only that, but trans fats have been linked to serious medical conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. These are things we definitely want to avoid to keep our lymphatic system healthy and happy!
Have you ever checked a label and noticed an ingredient called guar gum? It’s a type of soluble fiber that helps thicken and stabilize processed foods.
Although a small amount is not necessarily harmful, too much of it can cause digestive problems like bloating and gas.
When you eat foods with guar gum or other thickeners, it creates a sticky, gel-like texture in your digestive system. This slows down the movement of food and waste through your intestines (7).
When waste builds up in your intestines, it can cause inflammation and strain your lymphatic system.
What to Eat for a Healthy Lymphatic System
As a dietitian who’s interested in optimizing my lymphatic system, I’ve done a deep dive into how to keep lymphatic function in tip-top shape. And let me tell you – there are plenty of delicious and nutritious foods out there that can do just that!
By now you appreciate how important the lymphatic system is for removing waste and toxins from your body and helping to fight off disease. So let’s chat about how what you eat can support those efforts!
Luckily, many of the foods that are good for your lymphatic system are also just generally good for your overall health. Think whole foods like fresh fruits and veggies, whole grains, lean proteins, and healthy fats.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into some of the best foods to eat to support a healthy lymphatic system. Trust me, your body will thank you for it!
Citrus fruits like oranges, lemons, and grapefruits are high in vitamin C.
You’ve probably heard that vitamin C can help ward off infections. That’s because vitamin C supports lymphocyte production. Lymphocytes are a type of white blood cell that helps fight off infections and diseases.
Vitamin C is also a powerful antioxidant that can help protect the lymphatic system from free radicals and oxidative stress.
In addition to vitamin C, citrus fruits contain compounds called flavonoids that have anti-inflammatory properties. When you consume these compounds, they help to flush out toxins and keep the system flowing smoothly.
So, next time you’re looking for a healthy snack, reach for an orange or a grapefruit. Your lymphatic system will thank you!
Dark Leafy Greens
You know dark leafy greens are good for you, right? They are a nutritional powerhouse, and one of the reasons they are so beneficial is their ability to support lymphatic flow.
Greens such as spinach, kale, and collard greens are rich in chlorophyll, the green pigment found in plants.
Chlorophyll is a powerful antioxidant that supports the lymphatic system. By reducing inflammation and supporting detoxification in the liver, it’s hypothesized that chlorophyll may improve lymphatic function.
Dark leafy greens are also high in vitamin C, vitamin E, and beta-carotene. These potent antioxidants further reduce inflammation and protect against free radical damage.
Berries are rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals that help to protect the lymphatic system from oxidative stress and damage.
They also contain fiber, which supports healthy digestion and aids in the elimination of toxins.
Best Berries for Lymphatic Health
You’ve probably heard that ginger is anti-inflammatory. Did you know it also has immune-boosting properties that support overall lymphatic health?
Ginger has been traditionally used as a natural diuretic, which may help stimulate lymphatic drainage and reduce swelling (8). However, more research is needed to fully understand ginger’s effects on lymphatic drainage.
Garlic is a natural detoxifier. It contains sulfur compounds that support the elimination of toxins and waste from the body, promoting optimal lymphatic drainage.
Known for its strong flavor and potential health benefits, garlic contains bioactive compounds, such as allicin, that possess anti-inflammatory properties and may reduce inflammation in the lymphatic system.
Turmeric is a powerful anti-inflammatory spice that contains curcumin, a compound known for its antioxidant properties.
Curcumin has been found to inhibit inflammatory pathways and reduce oxidative stress, which may support healthy lymphatic function.
Additionally, curcumin has potential immune-modulating effects, which may support the overall health of the lymphatic system. However, more research is needed to fully understand the relationship between curcumin and lymphatic health.
Probiotic-rich dairy products and foods such as yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, and kimchi contain beneficial bacteria that support a healthy gut microbiome.
A healthy gut is essential for overall immune function and lymphatic health, as it helps to regulate inflammation and promote proper elimination of toxins.
Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds like almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds are excellent sources of healthy fats, fiber, and antioxidants that support lymphatic health.
These nutrient-dense foods help to reduce inflammation and promote healthy digestion.
Green tea and matcha have special compounds called catechins that act like powerful superheroes. They help boost our body’s immune system, making it stronger and better equipped to fight off those bad guys (9).
When you drink green tea, these catechins go into action, helping to cleanse your body’s lymphatic system by supporting the flow of lymph and keeping your immune system strong.
It’s like giving your immune system an extra boost, so it can work better and keep you healthy.
Have you ever tried beets? These ruby red root veggies are a great addition to any diet, especially if you’re looking to support a healthy lymphatic system.
Here’s how: beets are rich in betalains. These healthy plant compounds reduce inflammation, protect against oxidative stress, and thin the bile produced by the liver (10).
This in turn improves the flow of lymphatic fluid, making it easier for your lymphatic system to do its job.
Since inflammation and oxidative stress can impair the lymphatic system, adding beets to your diet can be a great way to support your health.
Plus, beets have lots of fiber, which keeps things moving smoothly in your digestive system. This promotes the healthy elimination of toxins, easing the burden on your lymphatic system.
Pro-tip: Enjoy beets roasted, boiled, or blended into a smoothie to give your lymphatic system a little extra love!
Last but certainly not least, drinking plenty of water is crucial for maintaining optimal lymphatic health!
Water helps to flush out toxins, waste, and excess fluid from the body, supporting proper lymphatic drainage and flow (11).
Healthy lymph should flow like a clear river, smooth and easy. Unhealthy lymph can look more like sludge or a thick, yellowish oil, and flow very slowly, if at all.
Staying hydrated helps keep your lymph clear and free-flowing so your body can eliminate toxins, viruses, and bacteria quickly and easily.
Other Tips for Improving Lymphatic Health
Exercise. Walking, yoga, and rebounding (jumping or dancing on a mini trampoline) are especially good choices to keep your lymphatic fluid moving.
Deep belly breathing. When you breathe deeply, your diaphragm massages the lymphatic vessels and promotes drainage. It also helps reduce stress and inflammation, both of which can impact lymphatic health.
Dry brushing. Using a special brush with stiff bristles, gently massage your skin in a circular motion. This stimulates your lymphatic system and promotes circulation and detoxification.
Lymphatic Health: Avoid the Bad, Embrace the Good
Think of your lymphatic system like a river. Just like a river can become clogged with debris, your lymphatic system can become blocked with toxins and waste.
It’s true that many common foods can have a negative impact on your lymphatic system. But there’s good news too! The right dietary changes can play a vital role in improving lymphatic health.
When you eat fewer foods that impair your lymphatic system while simultaneously increasing lymph-supporting foods, your lymphatic system reaps the benefits. So go ahead, give it a try!
Pro-tip: If you’re looking for a healthy diet that supports both healthy weight and your lymph system, consider diets like the Mediterranean diet or the DASH diet.
Pam is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Master’s of Public Health and a Certificate in Integrative and Functional Nutrition. Passionate about the science of health and nutrition, she loves to share her knowledge to help others live healthy, vibrant lives. When not working, Pam can be found hiking, traveling, and enjoying great-tasting, nutritious food.