High fat diets increase sensitivity to non-painful stimuli, may lead to chronic pain

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  • High fat diets are popular in developed countries like the United States but may contribute to health problems, such as inflammation.
  • Researchers are still working to understand the relationship between high fat diets, inflammation, and chronic pain.
  • A​ recent study found that individuals who followed a high fat diet experienced pain responses to non-painful stimuli, a similar effect that’s seen in people with obesity or type 2 diabetes.

Diet is a crucial component of health. Researchers are constantly uncovering new data about how diet influences the body. One area of interest is how high fat diets contribute to pain and inflammatory responses.

A​ recent study published in scientific reports explored how high fat diets induced pain responses in mice to non-painful stimuli.

The study results indicate that high fat diets could induce pain responses to non-painful stimuli, a similar effect that may be seen in individuals with obesity or type 2 diabetes.

The findings raise caution about high fat diets and how they may contribute to chronic pain.

People’s diets require at least some fat to ensure the body functions optimally.

Lipids allow the body to store energy and help with protection and cell structure. However, too much fat can lead to potential problems. For example, consuming excess saturated fat can increase the risk of heart disease.

While dietary recommendations are generally geared toward healthier food choices, many people are still consuming high levels of saturated fat and following high fat diet trends, particularly in the United States.

Researchers are still working to understand the full impact of high fat diets and how these diets may contribute to the body’s response to pain.

Laura Simmons, RDN, a registered dietitian nutritionist with RET Physical Therapy & Healthcare Specialists, WA, not involved in the study, noted to Medical News Today:

“We already know that high-fat diets can be inflammatory to our systems due to the increase in the inflammatory markers, increase in plaque formation in arteries, and deposits of fat if the high-fat diet is contributing to a caloric surplus. We have not had a great understanding of the relationship between inflammation and chronic pain, and specifically the role of food.”

Researchers of the current study were interested in the relationship between high fat diets and the body’s pain response.

They noted that previous research demonstrated that high fat diets can increase pain sensitivity. But they wanted to see if high fat diets could induce a pain response to non-painful stimuli.

Specifically, researchers wondered whether a pain response could happen in cases with no diabetes or obesity involved.

“Previous studies have looked at the relationship of high fat diets with mice who also were obese or had diabetes, but this recent study took out further variables and was able to start identifying the direct connection of diet on chronic pain,” Simmons said.

Researchers conducted the study using groups of mice that were fed different diets. They fed some mice a standard chow diet, while others received a high fat diet over 8 weeks. In this timeframe, the mice on the high fat diet did not develop obesity or hyperglycemia.

The mice who received the high fat diet had a much higher mechanical allodynia response. Allodynia involves experiencing pain in response to non-painful stimuli.

“This study indicates you don’t need obesity to trigger pain; you don’t need diabetes; you don’t need a pathology or injury at all,” study author Michael Burton, Ph.D., assistant professor of cellular and molecular neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas, explained in a press release.

“Eating a high fat diet for a short period of time is enough — a diet similar to what almost all of us in the U.S. eat at some point,” he continued.

The study opens up further discussion about the influence of diet on pain response. Its main limitation is that it was a study using mice, so a limited amount of the data applies to humans.

“We must be cautious to not jump to conclusions when studies are done on animals,” Simmons noted. “However, this study does show that further research should be done to better understand how diets like a high fat diet can influence chronic pain within humans.”

Dr. Sameer Murali, obesity medicine specialist with UTHealth Houston and Memorial Hermann, TX, not involved in this study, noted a few areas for continued research:

“Additional studies measuring changes in the microbiome, inflammatory markers, and pain, based on dietary differences that compare established surrogates for a Western diet, a whole food plant-based diet, and a control diet, could help further clarify the relationship between dietary composition and pain [and] inflammation. While this study is a step in the right direction, there are several gaps in translating the findings from rodents to humans to derive any important clinical implications.”

As evidence builds about the potentially harmful effects of high fat diets, those following these eating patterns may wish to exercise caution.

It’s generally a good idea to work with healthcare professionals and nutrition experts to develop a diet plan that best suits your needs, especially if you have a medical condition.

As a rule of thumb for fat intake, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025, recommends that less than 10% of calorie intake should come from saturated fats.

Overall, a moderate approach to fat consumption may be recommended.

“As with most things in nutrition, any extreme is going to have a consequence — very low fat diets may result in excess carbohydrate intake and inadequate absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (vitamins A, D, E, and K), which also can lead to health complications,” Simmons explained.

“There should be further research on acceptable ranges of fat intake that do not increase systemic inflammation (increase in chronic pain or elevating saturated fat intake) while also not going to a very low fat diet that could lead to malabsorption of vitamins or hormone disruption.”

– Laura Simmons, RDN

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