It tastes great, but is it really bad for us?

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With so many large international franchises vying our attention, at one point or another we enjoy this guilty pleasure.   In this case the brekkie bundle makes the unit cost of a bacon or sausage mcmuffin cheaper, which is great for groups, families and the workplace.  It’s satisfying yet at the same time, there’s really nothing to how the actual meal is put together, many would rather opt in than make their own breakfast in the morning, many will ponder of the menu for ages like its the first time they’ve seen it when it’s been exactly the same for decades – so what is that many people enjoy about these quick meals that somehow satisfy those hunger pangs?  This got us thinking about the health debates and peer review research around this topic.

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According to a 2012 study headed by scientists from the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria and the University of Granada, eating commercial baked goods (fairy cakes, croissants, doughnuts, etc.) and fast food (hamburgers, hotdogs and pizza) is linked to depression.  In their study,  the results reveal that consumers of fast food, compared to those who eat little or none, are 51% more likely to develop depression.

Furthermore, a dose-response relationship was observed.  In other words this means that “the more fast food you consume, the greater the risk of depression,” explains Almudena Sánchez-Villegas, lead author of the study.

The study demonstrated that those 8964 participants who ate the most fast food and commercial baked goods were more likely to be single, less active and have poor dietary habits, which include eating less fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables and olive oil.  Smoking and working more than 45 hours per week are other prevalent characteristics of this group.

Depression affects 264 million people worldwide.  Previous studies suggest that certain nutrients have a preventative role. These include group B vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and olive oil. Furthermore, a healthy diet such as that enjoyed in the Mediterranean has been linked to a lower risk of developing depression.

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In 2017, a study was able to demonstrate that fast food eating habits or poor diet wasn’t socio-economic either, disspelling myths.   

“Rich people may have more eating options, but that’s not stopping them from going to places like McDonald’s or KFC.”  said Jay Zagorsky, co-author of the study and research scientist at The Ohio State University’s Centre for Human Resource Research, who conducted the study with Patricia Smith of the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

In their longitudinal study, Zagorsky and Smith used data from about 8,000 people who were asked about their fast-food consumption in the 2008, 2010 and 2012 surveys. Participants, who were in their 40s and 50s at the time of the surveys, were asked how many times in the past seven days they had eaten “food from a fast-food restaurant such as McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut or Taco Bell.”

Results were compared with the participants’ answers to questions about their wealth and income. While there were some slight differences in how wealth and income were related to fast-food consumption, Zagorsky said the results were similar.

Overall, 79% of respondents ate fast food at least once and 23% ate three or more meals during any one of the weeks recorded in the study.

In one analysis, the researchers divided the participants into 10 groups based on income. About 80% of those in the lowest 10% of income ate at least once at a fast-food restaurant, compared to about 85% of those who were ranked near the middle (40 to 50 percent) in terms of income.  Of the richest 10%, about 75% reported eating at least one fast-food meal.

The number of fast-food meals eaten during the three weeks of the study showed a similar pattern.  The lowest 10% in terms of income ate about 3.6 fast-food meals during the three weeks of the survey, compared to about 4.2 meals for middle-income people and three meals for the richest 10% of participants.

Another key finding was that people whose income or wealth changed dramatically during the four years of the study — either going way up or way down — didn’t change their eating habits.

“If you became richer or poorer, it didn’t change how much fast food you ate,” Zagorsky said.

One hallmark of the heavy users of fast food was a lack of time.

The study found that fast-food eaters tended to have less leisure time because they were more likely to work and work more hours than non-fast-food eaters.  The researchers also found an interesting tidbit that should be of interest to people who saw the 2004 documentary Supersize Me. In the movie, Morgan Spurlock documented what happened to his body when he ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days.

“I thought that was just a publicity stunt, but we found real people out there who seem to eat all their meals at fast-food restaurants,” Zagorsky said.

In 2008, 10 respondents claimed to eat three times a day at fast-food restaurants, as did five people in 2010 and two in 2012.

Given that about 8,000 people participated in the survey, that suggests there may be quite a few people in the United States who go through periods of time during which they eat only fast food, Zagorsky said.

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The immune system reacts similarly to a high fat and high calorie diet as to a bacterial infection.  This was shown in a 2018 study led by the University of Bonn.   Particularly disturbing: Unhealthy food seems to make the body’s defenses more aggressive in the long term.  Even long after switching to a healthy diet, inflammation towards innate immune stimulation is more pronounced.  These long-term changes may be involved in the development of arteriosclerosis and diabetes, diseases linked to Western diet consumption.

The scientists placed mice for a month on a so-called “Western diet”: high in fat, high in sugar, and low in fibre.  The animals consequently developed a strong inflammatory response throughout the body, almost like after infection with dangerous bacteria. “The unhealthy diet led to an unexpected increase in the number of certain immune cells in the blood of the mice, especially granulocytes and monocytes. This was an indication for an involvement of immune cell progenitors in the bone marrow,” Anette Christ, postdoctoral fellow in the Institute of Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn explains. To better understand these unexpected findings, bone marrow progenitors for major immune cell types were isolated from mice fed a Western diet or healthy control diet and a systematic analysis of their function and activation state was performed.

“Genomic studies did, in fact, show that the Western diet had activated a large number of genes in the progenitor cells. The genes affected included those responsible for proliferation and maturation,” explains Prof. Dr. Joachim Schultze from the Life & Medical Sciences Institute (LIMES) at the University of Bonn and the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases (DZNE).  Fast food thus causes the body to quickly recruit a huge and powerful army. When the researchers offered the rodents their typical cereal diet for another four weeks, the acute inflammation disappeared.  What did not disappear was the genetic reprogramming of the immune cells and their precursors: Even after these four weeks, many of the genes that had been switched on during the fast food phase were still active.

“Fast food sensor” in the immune cells

“It has only recently been discovered that the innate immune system has a form of memory,” explains Prof. Dr. Eicke Latz, Director of the Institute for Innate Immunity of the University of Bonn and scientist at the DZNE. “After an infection, the body’s defenses remain in a kind of alarm state, so that they can respond more quickly to a new attack.” Experts call this “innate immune training.” In the mice, this process was not triggered by a bacterium, but by an unhealthy diet.

The scientists were further able to identify the responsible “fast food sensor” in immune cells.  They examined blood cells from 120 subjects.  In some of the subjects, the innate immune system showed a particularly strong training effect.  In these subjects, the researchers found genetic evidence of the involvement of a so-called inflammasome. Inflammasomes are key intracellular signaling complexes that recognise infectious agents and other harmful substances and subsequently release highly inflammatory messengers. 

The activation by Western diet changes the way in which the genetic information is packaged.  Unhealthy eating causes some of these normally hidden pieces of DNA to unwind, similar to a loop hanging out of a ball of wool.   These inflammatory responses can in turn accelerate the development of vascular diseases or type 2 diabetes.  In arteriosclerosis for example, the typical vascular deposits, the plaques, consist largely of lipids and immune cells.  The inflammatory reaction contributes directly to their growth, because newly activated immune cells constantly migrate into the altered vessel walls. When the plaques grow too large, they can burst, leading to blood clotting and are carried away by the bloodstream and can clog vessels. Possible consequences: Stroke or heart attack.

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However, when it comes to the hotcakes and new Banana Caramel pie here, team writer, JL vouches for them and they are worth the try.   Like all bodies of research it’s important to acknowledge limitations when making inferences from such study and so naturally when it comes to wellbeing and diet, being informed and definitely at the very least, moderation is something to consider.

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