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Burgers and Fries Raise Diabetes Risk

Study finds it so, independent of other risk factors

MONDAY, Feb. 4, 2002 (HealthDayNews) -- A new study says the typical American diet of burgers and fries increases your chances of getting Type II diabetes, even if you don't have other risk factors like obesity or a family history of the disease.

The latest study, which with 42,000 men was the largest of its kind, compared a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and grains to a "western" diet consisting heavily of red and processed meats, french fries, high-fat dairy products and sweets.

Those men on the "western" diet found themselves at a 60 percent higher risk for Type II diabetes, according to the Harvard University study, which appears in tomorrow's issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine.

"The men who ate the 'western' diet were clearly at greater risk for Type II diabetes, even after we factored in obesity and exercise -- two major risk factors for this disease," says study author Dr. Frank Hu, an assistant professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Indeed, says Hu, even thin men in the study who ate the "western" diet still had a higher risk of disease. "We were really able to show that, even on its own, this diet is a major risk factor," says Hu.

Type II diabetes develops when the body can't use insulin efficiently. The problem begins as a condition known as "insulin resistance," and can then rapidly decline into Type II diabetes. When this occurs, medication often becomes necessary to boost the body's ability to use the insulin and metabolize sugars.

Many studies have discussed the impact of diet on the disease. The new study, which compared the dietary habits of the men over a 12-year period, offers what Hu says is solid proof.

For nutritionist Samantha Heller, the study serves to reinforce what health aficionados have been saying for a long time.

"It's nice to see the study has proven that," says Heller, a registered dietician and nutritionist at New York University Medical Center.

The study pointed up the fact that high-fat foods -- such as red meat and certain dairy products -- raised the risk of diabetes. However, the researchers also noted that fat -- even saturated fat -- did not increase the risks. That begs the question: If it's not fat content, what is it about the "western" diet that is so bad?

Heller says the answer may lie in trans fats, also known as hydrogenated fats, which are plant oils that are chemically altered to change their textural properties and melting points.

"Many studies -- some by these same authors -- have shown that trans fats increase the risk of Type II diabetes," says Heller. Not coincidentally, she adds, most trans fats are found in fried and baked foods, refined grains, sweets and desserts.

"Both saturated and trans fatty acids decrease insulin concentration, leading to insulin resistance,'" says Heller. That, in turn, leads to Type II diabetes.

The study looked at the dietary habits of 42,504 predominantly white American men between the ages of 40 and 75 over a period of 12 years.

The effects of the diet were independent of obesity, lack of physical activity, high body mass index (amount of body fat) or family history of diabetes -- all believed to be risk factors for Type II diabetes.

"When all these factors were also present in addition to the Western diet, then the risk was even higher -- but the risk still existed, even when these other factors were taken into consideration," says Hu.

Heller is not surprised.

"Whatever the parameters, we come to the same conclusions: that whole foods, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, fruits, and plenty of good, old-fashioned exercise will help keep us healthier longer."

What To Do

If you are interested in following a low-risk diet similar to the one used in this study, visit Delicious Decisions for the American Heart Association's diet and recipe collection.

You can also check out the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases to learn more about the disease.

SOURCES: Interviews with Frank Hu, M.D., assistant professor, nutrition, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston; Samantha Heller, M.S., R.D., nutritionist, Joan and Joel Smilow Center for Cardiac Rehabilitation and Prevention, New York University Medical Center, New York City; Feb. 5, 2002, Annals of Internal Medicine
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