JUST two or three visits a week to a fast-food outlet may be enough to put you under threat of obesity and diabetes.
Despite claims by the fast-food industry that its products can form part of a healthy diet, participants in a major US trial showed signs of significant weight gains by eating at fast-food diners more than twice a week.
The study, published today in the British medical journal The Lancet, covered more than 3000 young people for 15 years from 1985, to investigate the link between fast-food consumption, weight gain and insulin resistance.
The researchers found fast-food consumption had "strong associations" with weight gain and insulin resistance, indicating that fast food increased the risk of obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
By comparison with the average weight gain among trial participants who ate fast food less than once a week, those who made frequent visits to fast-food outlets - defined as more than two a week - gained an extra 4.5kg and doubled their increase in insulin resistance.
Insulin is a hormone secreted in the pancreas that regulates blood-sugar levels. Insulin resistance leads to elevated blood sugar - the cause of Type 2 or adult-onset diabetes, Australia's sixth-biggest cause of death.
Study co-author David Ludwig, director of the obesity program at Boston's Children's Hospital in Massachusetts, said the study showed that the more fast food a person ate, the greater the health risk.
"We can't estimate any minimal safe level," Dr Ludwig said.
"Fast food as it is now marketed is inherently unhealthful. Fast food doesn't have any precise definition, but it's a bit like pornography - you know it when you see it.
"As to whether a pizza restaurant is fast food or not, you could debate - but everyone knows a bacon double cheeseburger with fries and Coke at McDonald's is a direct hit."
Like the US, Australia is facing an obesity epidemic. A study in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2003 found 48.2 per cent of men and 29.9 per cent of women were overweight, while another 19.3 per cent of men and 22.2 per cent of women were obese.
Several patrons of a fast-food outlet in central Sydney visited at random by The Australian yesterday were concerned by the findings.
Eden McGregor, 33, from Norah Head on the NSW central coast, said he and his wife Susan, 24, usually ate fast food once a week because it was convenient, but health warnings had "changed our eating habits drastically".
"Often we will come in and just choose something from the healthy range," he said.
A spokeswoman for McDonald's defended its record, saying the company "advocates a balanced lifestyle, offering menu variety, customer information to support an informed choice and the promotion of physical activity".
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