The Standard American Diet and Chronic Pain

When we think about diets, we typically think about weight and restricting calories. But simply restricting calorie intake may have adverse effects.  When we consume foods, it's important to remember what will really make our bodies healthy, and ultimately happiest. If you are suffering from chronic pain, many studies have been shown that a diet with a focus on plant-based foods can have beneficial effects.

The Standard American Diet (SAD) consists of excessive amounts of meat, refined grain products, and dessert foods. True to popular belief, SAD has a low intake of both fruits and vegetables. Twenty-five percent of Americans eat a single fruit serving in one day, and ten percent eat the minimum recommended amount of vegetables. Also, SAD is profuse in meat, dairy, sugar, fat, and processed foods. Because of such abundance and accessibility of these foods in America, we tend to have excess amounts of these foods. Sixty-three percent of America’s calories come from refined and processed foods, twenty-five percent come from animal-based foods, and a mere twelve percent come from plant based foods. Sadly, six percent of the plant based calories come from French fries. These statistics are almost hard to believe. Although we have been hearing these facts for possibly a decade, the consequences of SAD are often undermined.

Degenerative diseases, inflammation, and chronic pain are all tied to diet, and more specifically SAD. A study from 2002 determined that most degenerative diseases are caused by a diet-induced proinflammatory state. For example obesity and chronic pain are frequently comorbid, and they are both inflammatory issues. Pain is the result of inflammation. When we consume refined sugars, refined flour, and omega-6 oils. Instead of obtaining our essential fatty acids from whole food sources, we are replacing these necessary oils with oils from calorie dense foods with low nutritional value. Many studies indicate this direct link between poor diet quality and increased pain.

Some diseases and conditions that have been found to be linked to SAD are: greater risk of Alzheimer’s disease, atherosclerosis, breast pain, heart disease, and inflammatory bowel disease, greater risk of pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer, and enlarged prostate and heart attack. Inflammation is our immune response to tissue damage and infection. Our immune systems work in response to toxins as part of a healing mechanism and will cause pain.  However, it involves many signaling pathways in our body and is not as simple as it seems. This is why it is important to approach prevention, and possibly cure, inflammation in an interdisciplinary way.

In order to counteract these diseases, the one of the simplest approaches we should try is to change dietary guidelines. When faced with chronic pain, reducing intake of carbohydrates, processed sugars, and meats can reduce inflammation and therefore pain.  Whole foods and plant-based diets have been shown to prevent and even reverse some chronic diseases. A whole food, plant-based diet consists of vegetables, fruits, whole grains, tubers and legumes. It reduces intake of meat, dairy, eggs, bleached flour, refined sugar, and oil. Antioxidants and essential fatty acids are found in a whole food, plant based diet, and an absence or imbalance of these important nutrients can promote inflammation and disease.  The importance of our diets is shocking, but SAD is even more shocking. If we continue to consume these kinds of foods, our bodies will suffer. Most treatment programs for degenerative diseases or diseases that cause inflammation include nutritional protocols.

An anti-inflammatory diet can help relieve pain, even as you age. Vegan diets, or diets with reduced intake of dairy products and meat and increased consumption of vegetables, can control insulin and cholesterol levels and decrease inflammation. When we are in chronic pain, it is important not to underestimate the necessity of a healthy diet. If Americans begin to follow dietary guidelines, perhaps pain and inflammation will be reduced.

Abigail Jawahar