You may think eating fast food once a week (or maybe twice a week at most) has little impact on your risk of developing coronary heart disease, but apparently, this is not the case.

According to a joint study by the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health (UM) and National University of Singapore’s (NUS) Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, a person’s age, smoking status and level of physical activity may have less of an impact on one’s risk of developing coronary heart disease – when compared to a fast food diet.

Higher risk of coronary heart disease for fast food lovers

In this study, participants who ate fast food more frequently were younger, physically more active, had a lower incidence of high blood pressure and smoked less.

Due to their demographics, “you would expect this group to have a lower risk of developing coronary heart disease. Instead, these study participants had a higher incidence of coronary heart disease, suggesting a strong association between frequent intake of Western fast food and coronary heart disease,” shares Assistant Professor Ho Kay Woon, Senior Consultant from the Department of Cardiology at National Heart Centre Singapore (NHCS), a member of the SingHealth​ group.

How bad is fast food for the heart?

The study showed that:

  • Eating Western fast food once a week could increase a person’s risk of dying from coronary heart disease (also called coronary artery disease) by 20 per cent.

  • For those who eat Western fast food two to three times a week, the risk increases to 50 per cent for those who eat Western fast food two to three times a week, and to 80 per cent for those who eat it four times or more a week.

    Eating fast food two times or more a week could also increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus by 27 percent.

What makes fast food so unhealthy?

A fast food diet is typically high in calories, sodium, trans fat, and low in dietary fibre. Such a diet, predominantly featuring processed meat and refined carbohydrates, has been associated with the development of diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome, says Dr Ho.

Limit intake of 'local fast food' for a healthy heart

Local favourites such as fried kway teow, roti prata, fried dough fritters, preserved canned food (with high salt content) and processed meat like luncheon meats are as unhealthy as Western fast foods.

“These local foods have a similar unhealthy nutritional profile and are also expected to be associated with adverse cardiometabolic conditions. The key is eating in moderation,” advises Asst Prof Ho.

What are early signs of possible heart disease?

Typically, coronary heart disease presents with chest discomfort or tightness that comes with exertion. The discomfort will be relieved after a period of rest and recur when exertion is resumed, explains Asst Prof Ho.

Sudden, severe gripping chest pain, which may be associated with sweating or nausea, may indicate a heart attack. The pain usually persists for more than 30 minutes. However, some patients may present with less typical symptoms such as breathlessness on exertion or gastric discomfort, especially in diabetic patients.

Causes of premature coronary heart disease

According to a study, patients aged below 40 who were admitted for acute myocardial infarction (also known as a heart attack) shared these characteristics: 

  1. 84 per cent of them smoked
  2. 56 per cent had high cholesterol
  3. 20 per cent had a family history of premature coronary disease
  4. 19 per cent had high blood pressure
  5. 16 per cent had diabetes mellitus

The UM-NUS study shows that a Western diet is another factor associated with coronary heart disease. Though all risk factors act in concert, this study does ser​ve as a reminder to maintain a healthy diet, says Asst Prof Ho.

Ref: O17

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