New study finds high fat diet can provoke pain and inflammation

Dr Malhotra explains the truth behind saturated fats

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It is well known that diet plays a significant role in our health and wellbeing. And more specifically eating too much fat can lead to issues such as raised cholesterol and being overweight. However, a new study suggests it could do damage in a more unexpected way.

A team of researchers from The University of Texas, in the US, discovered that a high fat diet could be linked to pain sensations.

The findings suggested this pain could occur even in the absence of a prior injury or a pre-existing condition like obesity or diabetes.

In a university release, co-author and assistant professor of neuroscience, Doctor Michael Burton explained: “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.

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

As part of the study, which was published in the Scientific Reports journal, two groups of mice were fed different diets for eight weeks.

One group was given a regular diet while the other was fed a high-fat diet in a way that did not precipitate the development of obesity or high blood sugar.

These are both conditions that can result in diabetic neuropathy and other types of pain.

The researchers concluded that the high-fat diet induced hyperalgesic priming – a neurological change that represents the transition from acute to chronic pain – as well as allodynia, which is pain resulting from stimuli that do not normally provoke pain.

They also compared obese, diabetic mice with the healthy groups.

“It became clear, surprisingly, that you don’t need an underlying pathology or obesity. You just needed the diet,” Doctor Burton said.

“This is the first study to demonstrate the influential role of a short exposure to a high-fat diet to allodynia or chronic pain.

“We’ve seen in the past that, in models of diabetes or obesity, only a subsection of the people or animals experience allodynia, and if they do, it varies across a spectrum, and it isn’t clear why.

“We hypothesised that there had to be other precipitating factors.”

The team looked for saturated fatty acids in the blood of the mice fed the high-fat diet and found that a type of fatty acid called palmitic acid – the most common saturated fatty acid in animals – binds to a particular receptor on nerve cells, a process that results in inflammation and mimics injury to the neurons.

“The metabolites from the diet are causing inflammation before we see pathology develop,” Doctor Burton said.

“Diet itself caused markers of neuronal injury.”

Saturated fat

Diets high in saturated fats have already been linked with obesity, diabetes and associated conditions.

Saturated fats can lead to free fatty acids circulating in their bloodstream, which induce systemic inflammation.

Foods high in saturated fat include:

  • Butter, ghee, suet, lard, coconut oil and palm oil
  • Cakes and biscuits
  • Fatty cuts of meat, sausages and bacon
  • Cured meats like salami, chorizo and pancetta
  • Cheese
  • Pastries, such as pies, quiches, sausage rolls and croissants
  • cream, crème fraîche, sour cream and ice cream
  • Coconut milk and coconut cream
  • Milkshakes
  • Chocolate and chocolate spreads.

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