WEDNESDAY, Oct. 3, 2012 (HealthDay News) -- People who eat a so-called "Western diet," which is high in fat, salt and sugar, are at significantly greater risk for stroke or premature death, according to a new study involving rats.
Researchers from Canada found this type of food, also known as the "cafeteria diet," creates what they called "a ticking time bomb of health problems."
For the study, the researchers gave sedentary rats a choice of nutritional food pellets or junk food items including cookies, sausage and cupcakes. The animals were also given a choice of water or a 30 percent sugar solution that imitated soft drinks.
Like humans, the researchers said, the rats preferred the treats. And after eating a high-calorie, high-sugar and high-sodium diet for just two months, they developed symptoms of a condition known as metabolic syndrome, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and obesity -- factors that increase the risk of stroke and other health problems.
The researchers noted that the rats were only the equivalent of about 16 to 22 years old in human years.
"I think we'll soon start to see people in their 30s or 40s having strokes, having dementia, because of this junk food diet," the study's lead researcher, Dr. Dale Corbett, scientific director of the Center for Stroke Recovery at Canada's Heart and Stroke Foundation, said in a foundation news release. "Young people will have major, major problems much earlier in life."
The study authors said their findings underscore the need for regular exercise and a well-balanced diet to prevent metabolic syndrome.
"We're not sure whether metabolic syndrome can be reversed," noted Corbett. "If it can't, and we continue to live and eat like this, then we're each a ticking time bomb of health problems," he added.
Another expert, Dr. Mark Bayley, co-chair of the Canadian Stroke Congress and medical director of the Neurological Rehabilitation Program at Toronto Rehab, pointed out in the news release that "metabolic syndrome and stroke are huge health concerns for the public. We cannot afford to continue making poor nutritional choices. Our diet is killing us."
The study authors concluded that more research is needed to investigate the risks of a poor diet on animals that have other health issues.
"Laboratory models often use relatively young animals who are healthier and on better diets than we are," Corbett noted. "However, it is important to remember that for many people, the consequences would be even worse, since a lot of people with stroke also have pre-existing health problems."
The study was scheduled to be presented Monday at the Canadian Stroke Congress, in Calgary. The data and conclusions of research presented at meetings should be viewed as preliminary until published in a peer-reviewed journal. In addition, experts point out that results from animal research are not necessarily applicable to humans.
And while the study found an association between the unhealthy diets and an increase in health risk factors in the rats, it didn't prove a cause-and-effect relationship.
The U.S. National Stroke Association has more about stroke risk factors.