An estimated 50 million Americans are living with chronic pain–or nearly 20 percent of the population. A new study published in Nature Metabolism reveals that a typical American high-fat diet can increase people’s risk of painful disorders, and conditions commonly associated with pain. The research looked at the link between unhealthy omega-6 fatty acids (found in processed snacks, fast foods, sweets, processed meats, and junk food) and pain.

Ditching a Western high-fat diet, and particularly reducing omega-6 intake and increasing omega-3 lipids (the so-called “healthy” fats such as those found in olive oil and walnuts), greatly reduced pain conditions in those suffering from conditions such as obesity and diabetes, the study found. The researchers also discovered that levels of omega-6 lipids in individuals with Type 2 diabetic neuropathic pain were associated with higher pain levels and the need for taking analgesic drugs.

"This paper is a high-profile contribution for a huge unmet translational need as there are no treatments altering the nature of this neurological disease," said José E. Cavazos, MD, Ph.D., professor of neurology, assistant dean, and director of the National Institutes of Health-designated South Texas Medical Scientist Training Program at UT Health San Antonio, in the study’s press release via Science Daily.

The Standard American Diet or SAD is linked to chronic pain

“The research confirmed the supposition regarding omega-6 fatty acid consumption can increase chronic pain in those with pain conditions. It found this to be true based on the fact that the Standard American Diet [also known as SAD] is packed with omega-6 fatty acids which are pro-inflammatory and is lacking omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory,” said Trista K. Best, MPH, RD, LDN, Balance One Supplements.

“When there is an imbalance between these two essential fatty acids the body can become inflamed and pain conditions can worsen due to this inflammation,” she said, adding that these findings should encourage those with pain and inflammatory conditions to consider avoiding the Western diet and embracing a plant-based lifestyle instead.

“SAD is based primarily on processed foods made with vegetable oils and other omega-6 fatty acid ingredients. A plant-based diet is significantly lacking in processed convenience foods. By switching to a plant-based diet, the consumer would simultaneously lower the omega-6 in their diet and bring balance between it and omega-3,” she added.

A diet filled with omega-6 fatty acids may cause and/or exacerbate chronic pain, explained Kristin Gillespie, MS, RD, LD, advisor for She also cautioned that plant-based dieters can easily run into excess omega-6 fats in their meals. “While embracing a plant-based diet is healthful in many regards, it can also be rich in omega-6 fatty acids."

"Top sources of omega-6 fatty acids include processed foods, tofu, soybeans, nuts and legumes, and some animal products. As you can see, many of these foods would be prevalent in a plant-based diet,” she said. “I do also want to point out as well that omega-6 fatty acids are essential in the diet as our bodies need them but cannot produce them, so it is not necessary or appropriate to completely cut out omega-6 fatty acids. It is, however, good to achieve a balance between omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (i.e., increasing omega-3 intake and decreasing omega-6 intake),” she further commented.

“Parts of the study at hand were conducted in animals, so the results should be interpreted with caution," Gillespie noted. "Although animal studies are very helpful and often allow us to avoid bias or additional variables that would present in human studies, our metabolism and bodily function may vary. So the results may not directly translate from mice to humans.”

This study adds to a growing body of research that SAD is incredibly detrimental to our health. The corollary? A vegan diet is a boon for our health. “A plant-based diet will not only improve the consumer's inflammation and pain but can also lower their risk of other chronic diseases. This is due primarily to the anti-inflammatory nature of a plant-based diet and the antioxidant-rich foods this diet pattern provides,” explained Best. “Chronic, low-grade inflammation and free radicals wreak havoc in our bodies. They slowly dampen our immune response and damage otherwise healthy cells. When these cells replicate and inflammation persists the body becomes more at risk for chronic illnesses like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. By eating an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant-rich diet we can help protect against these often avoidable, diet-related conditions. A plant-based diet is also low in saturated and trans fats, which are linked to many chronic illnesses as well.”

Indeed, a plant-based diet can be very protective from diseases ranging from cardiovascular disease to some types of cancer. “Recently, there has been a lot of attention paid to plant-based diets and their impact on overall health. Adhering to a plant-based diet seems to be able to prevent the development of chronic conditions, including heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancer,” commented Gillespie.

Riffing on Best, she continued: “Plant-based whole foods are often rich in antioxidants and other healthful compounds such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals, which help keep our cells healthy and functional. Antioxidants are especially helpful in maintaining health and warding off illness; they prevent free radical damage from occurring within the body, thus preventing inflammation and disease development.”

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