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Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter October 1, 2017

The impact of the Standard American Diet in rats: Effects on behavior, physiology and recovery from inflammatory injury

Stacie K. Totsch, Tammie L. Quinn, Larissa J. Strath, Laura J. McMeekin, Rita M. Cowell, Barbara A. Gower and Robert E. Sorge


Background and aims

Obesity is a significant health concern in the Western world and the presence of comorbid conditions suggests an interaction. The overlapping distributions of chronic pain populations and obesity suggests that an interaction may exist. Poor quality diet (high carbohydrates, saturated fats, omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids) can lead to increased adiposity which can activate immune cells independent of the activating effect of the diet components themselves. This dual action can contribute to chronic inflammation that may alter susceptibility to chronic pain and prolong recovery from injury. However, traditional examinations of diet focus on high-fat diets that often contain a single source of fat, that is not reflective of an American diet. Thus, we examined the impact of a novel human-relevant (high-carbohydrate) American diet on measures of pain and inflammation in rats, as well as the effect on recovery and immune cell activation.


We developed a novel, human-relevant Standard American Diet (SAD) to better model the kilocalorie levels and nutrient sources in an American population. Male and female rats were fed the SAD over the course of 20 weeks prior to persistent inflammatory pain induction with Complete Freund’s Adjuvant (CFA). Mechanical and thermal sensitivity were measured weekly. Spontaneous pain, open field locomotion and blood glucose levels were measured during diet consumption. Body composition was assessed at 20 weeks. Following full recovery from CFA-induced hypersensitivity, blood was analyzed for inflammatory mediators and spinal cords were immunohistochemically processed for microglial markers.


Chronic consumption of the SAD increased fat mass, decreased lean mass and reduce bone mineral density. SAD-fed rats had increased leptin levels and pro-inflammatory cytokines in peripheral blood serum. Following CFA administration, mechanical sensitivity was assessed and recovery was delayed significantly in SAD-fed animals. Sex differences in the impact of the SAD were also observed. The SAD increased body weight and common T-cell related inflammatory mediators in female, but not male, animals. In males, the SAD had a greater effect on bone mineral density and body composition. Long-term consumption of the SAD resulted in elevated microglial staining in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord, but no sex differences were observed.


We demonstrate the negative effects of an American diet on physiology, behavior and recovery from injury. SAD consumption elevated pro-inflammatory mediators and increased microglial activation in the spinal cord. While there were sex differences in weight gain and inflammation, both sexes showed prolonged recovery from injury.


These data suggest that poor quality diet may increase susceptibility to chronic pain due to persistent peripheral and central immune system activation. Furthermore, consumption of a diet that is high in carbohydrates and omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acid is likely to lead to protracted recovery following trauma or surgical procedures. These data suggest that recovery of a number of patients eating a poor quality diet may be expedited with a change in diet to one that is healthier.

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  1. Author contributions:RES and SKT designed the experiments, SKT tested the animals, SKT and TLQ performed the blood testing and specimen collection. RES, SKT and BAG designed the SAD with the assistance of Dr. Tina Herfel (Envigo). BAG oversaw the blood analysis. RMC and LM ran the immunohistochemistry, TLQimaged the slides, TLQ and LJS performed quantification. RES and SKT wrote the manuscript.

  2. Funding sources:This study was supported by an Early Career Research Grant to RES from the International Association for the Study of Pain.

  3. Ethical issues:None.

  4. Conflict of interest:The authors report no real or perceived conflicts of interest.


The authors wish to thank Maryellen Williams for her assistance with blood sample analysis and Megan Waite for her assistance with data collection.


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Received: 2017-04-24
Revised: 2017-08-23
Accepted: 2017-08-24
Published Online: 2017-10-01
Published in Print: 2017-10-01

© 2017 Scandinavian Association for the Study of Pain

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