If you’re overweight and in pain, it’s not the amount of food you’re eating that’s responsible, but rather the quality, according to a new report investigating the effects of the Mediterranean diet. In their study, Ohio State University researchers found that overweight people eating this type of diet were less likely to experience regular pain.
The well-known link between excess body weight and increased risk of chronic pain is thought to be due to weight-induced inflammation.
The new study published in the journal Pain shows that consuming anti-inflammatory foods such as fish, nuts, and beans can stop or reduce chronic pain.
“We found that a healthy diet explained the link between weight and pain and specifically that seafood and plant proteins such as peas and nuts and beans were key,” said lead researcher Charles Emery, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University. “It appears to be telling us that it’s not just the quantity of the food you eat that plays a role in pain for heavier individuals, but the quality of food as well.”
The study authors created a model to investigate whether components of an anti-inflammatory, Mediterranean-style diet high in fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats, were associated with the likelihood a person’s weight would contribute to pain. The model took into account weight, an analysis of self-reported dietary patterns, and results of a two-question pain survey. The researchers accounted for other factors that could influence their results, including age, depression, analgesic medication use, and joint pain.
The study included 98 men and women ages 20 to 78 years. Researchers spent three hours in the homes of each participant. Three different measures of weight—body mass index, waist circumference, and body fat percentage—were evaluated.
In all three cases, a clear pattern was observed. There was evidence that anti-inflammatory proteins may explain the link between increased weight and pain.
Eating more fish and plant-based proteins such as nuts and beans was linked with less pain, independent of body weight.
In addition, the study confirmed previous research that found there is a greater likelihood that people who are overweight or obese will suffer from pain.
“Obesity and pain are significant public health problems. This was an attempt to take a very detailed snapshot of how they might be related,” Emery said. “We were interested in the possibility of an inflammatory mechanism explaining the connection because we know there’s a high degree of inflammation associated with obesity and with pain. For people with obesity, it’s kind of like a cloud hanging over them because they experience high levels of pain and inflammation.”
The data were pulled from a larger initial study that evaluated how the home environment affects psychological and social functioning of obese people and people at a healthy weight.
A possible limitation to the study included an absence of blood samples that would allow the researchers to examine inflammatory markers. In addition, pain was only measured for a short time—during the previous month—but did not account for longer duration chronic pain.
The researchers next step? To evaluate body fat and pain using biomarkers linked to inflammation.
“I’m interested in how our work can contribute to effective treatments for overweight and obese individuals,” Emery said.
Source: Emery CF, Olson KL, Bodine A, et al. Dietary intake mediates the relationship of body fat to pain. Pain. 2017 Feb;158(2):273-277. doi: 10.1097/j.pain.0000000000000754.