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Our Stealthy Weapon Against China: Junk Food

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A growing preference for Western-style fast food in Asian and Southeast Asian countries already shows an impact on their populations' health, and not in a good way, according a newly released study by the University of Michigan.

Researchers of the university's School of Public Health found that Chinese residents in Singapore were at a higher risk of developing diabetes and heart disease since fast food restaurant chains like McDonald's, Burger King and KFC started setting up shop in the 1980s. Prior to that time, American-style fast food was practically unknown there and diseases like these were comparatively rare.

"What we found was a dramatic public health impact by fast food, a product that is primarily a Western import into a completely new market," Odegaard said in an interview with the Duluth News Tribune, a local Minnesota newspaper.

According to the study, which was published online in the journal Circulation by the American Heart Association, people who consumed fast food even as little as once a week, increased their risk of developing coronary heart disease by 20 per cent compared to those who never touched it. The rate jumped to 50 per cent for those who indulged two to three times per week, and to 80 per cent for those who went beyond that. Regular consumption of fast food also seemed to lead to a substantially higher risk of type 2 diabetes, according to the study.

Until now, there has been surprisingly little research on potential links between fast food and health risks and that was mainly focused on the United States. Andrew Odegaard, a post-doctoral researcher at UM and study leader said he wanted to look at a Southeast Asian population because of the relatively small time frame since fast food was introduced there and also because the population there is quickly becoming a hotbed for diet and lifestyle diseases similar to the U.S.

In cooperation with the National University of Singapore, the UM team analyzed medical records and questionnaires about diet and lifestyle habits of over 50,000 Chinese Singapore residents. During the study's 16-year follow-up period, 2,252 participants developed diabetes and 1,397 died of heart attacks or heart-related diseases.

Although focused on a relatively small group, the study results could be relevant for future research in public health on a global scale. "The consumption of Western-style fast food is really growing in Asia and Southeast Asia, in countries where there are a lot of developing economies," said Odegaard in the interview. [For the major fast-food chains], "this is their primary engine of growth. What the companies have going on in North America is steady, the market is saturated, but there is real growth in the growing economies."

Critics of the report have called the results inconclusive because many of the applied data were largely based on self-reporting by participants, which is often considered imprecise and unreliable. Also, critics say that unhealthy eating habits tend to go hand in hand with other poor lifestyle choices, such as smoking, drinking and sedentary behavior. Poverty and lack of access to healthcare may also play a role. Singling out fast food as the one culprit would therefore be unreasonable.

Still, it is undeniable that the growing popularity of Western eating styles is coinciding with a dramatic increase in obesity and related illnesses in many parts of the world. Even in places like Brazil, where the government has made serious efforts to limit access to fast food in schools and residential areas to protect the public's health, especially of children, the rates of diabetes and heart disease are going up. Apparently even some of the most stringent existing regulations don't suffice.