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The Western-style diet of processed and high-fat foods has been linked to neuropathic, or nerve, pain by researchers. Photo: Shutterstock

Standard American diet causes chronic pain and inflammation, study shows – it is high in the wrong kind of fat

  • Add chronic pain and inflammation to the ailments a Western-style diet triggers, such as obesity, heart disease and cancer. The cause? Too many omega-6 fats
  • These fats are largely found in processed foods, and researchers have linked them to the sensation of burning pain. More oily fish and walnuts are the answer

The Western-style diet – also called the meat-sweet diet or standard American diet – is associated with many ills, and now chronic pain may be added to the list.

The diet generally has servings that are too large, with plenty of high-fat foods, high-sugar desserts and drinks, red meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products. It generally lacks fruit, vegetables, whole grains, fish, nuts and seeds. It has been linked to obesity, heart disease, cancer and a host of other ailments.

Fats provide important health benefits, but you can have too much of a good thing. Most people eat too much food high in omega-6 fats and not enough that is high in omega-3 fats. A new study looks at the potential for omega-6 fats’ influence on neuropathic pain – often described as shooting or burning pain – in people with diabetes and other conditions.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Centre at San Antonio studied the effects of omega-6 fatty acids by measuring their role in pain conditions and found that the substances seem to cause pain and inflammation.

Healthy omega-3 fats are found in oily fish and other sources including flaxseed and nuts. Photo: Shutterstock

The abundance of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats prominent in the typical Western diet “served as a significant risk factor for both inflammatory and neuropathic pain”, the researchers said.

Diabetes, autoimmune disorders and cardiovascular diseases are known to be affected by what we eat, the researchers said. But excessive consumption of omega-6 fats, found largely in processed foods, had not been studied in terms of the fatty acids themselves and their role specifically in pain.

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A team of researchers from the departments of biomedical sciences, chemistry and neurology studied polyunsaturated fatty acids in both mice and humans.

Both omega-6 and omega-3 fats are essential for proper nutritional health, but the new study suggests that too much of the omega-6 fats could have detrimental effects. The five-year study was published in the June edition of the journal Nature Metabolism.

Omega-6 fats mainly occur in foods with vegetable oils and are beneficial – to a point.

The Western-style diet is associated with fried snacks and processed foods that have much higher levels of omega-6 fats than omega-3 fats. Photo: Shutterstock

“Western diets associated with obesity are characterised by much higher levels of those acids in foods from corn chips to onion rings, than healthy omega-3 fats, which are found in fish and sources like flaxseed and walnuts,” the researchers’ statement said. “Generally, unhealthy foods high in omega-6 fats include processed snacks, fast foods, cakes, and fatty and cured meats, among others.”

Reversing those dietary habits and increasing consumption of omega-3 fats “greatly reduced these pain conditions”, the researchers found. They also demonstrated that skin levels of omega-6 fats in patients with Type 2 diabetic neuropathic pain were strongly associated with reported pain levels and the need to take painkillers.

While more research needs to be done, the work could lay a “foundation for new clinical trials and ultimately provide new avenues for the clinical treatment of neuropathies”, wrote Duke University researchers Aidan McGinnis and Ru-Rong Ji in an accompanying editorial.