What happens when you consume fast food and a bottle of some sweet-flavored beverage for lunch? And then follow it up with a similar kind of meal for dinner? And then repeat this for the rest of the week? And then the week after that? And continue doing this for one whole month? And what if it is all paid for? Somebody else picks up the tab right through. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?
Well, this paid-for craziness is what a bunch of 18 people from both genders in Sweden indulged in about two years ago. They were recruited for an experiment by a team of nutritionists and hepatologists, from different disciplines of the Linkoping University, who wanted to observe the impact of this "hyper-alimentation" on the body. Rather than observing how this particular lifestyle-diet influences the body spread over a long period of time (say, one year or more), they sought to accelerate it. And what did they find?
As expected, the experts discovered the BMI had jumped radically - by as much as 15%. Close friends could no longer recognize that it was the same person they had known for so long. The participants could no longer get into their earlier clothing by the end of the fourth week, and had to go buy new clothes for themselves. Further, the body's resistance to insulin had come down, making these 18 people highly susceptible to type 2 diabetes. And third and very important - and which was the real focus of the experiment - the level of an enzyme secreted by liver, known as Alanine Aminotransferase (ALT), shot up. Correspondingly, the volume of triglyceride in the hepatic cells (HTGC) too more than doubled.
The significance of this rise in ALT can be gauged by the fact that this biomarker becomes prominent in a medical condition known as liver steatosis, which is a technical buzzword for excess absorption of fats by the liver cells. Steatosis is a precursor to Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD), which is a hop away from end-stage liver disease. The conclusion derived from this study was - a combination of fast-food and sweetened beverage equals obesity, type 2 diabetes and liver damage. The experiment and its findings are published here, in case you want to know more: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/gut.2007.131797.
There are a couple of points about this experiment worth mentioning. One is that the study unequivocally states (in the "Discussion" section) that (I quote) "... fat intake was (found to be) unrelated to increase in ALT while sugar and carbohydrate intake at week 3 clearly related to ALT increase." It bolsters this statement by referring to another research which virtually absolves fast-food of the blame of causing steatosis but accuses coke to be the real culprit. However, read the details of this other research (available here), and you find that this other research's subjects were morbidly obese patients on the verge of undergoing bariatric surgery. Not only was this other research's approach to investigation different (they previewed the dietary habits of the patients and compared it with their biopsy reports), but the histopathological profile of the two sets of subjects is also totally different. It appeared to be a case of comparing apples with oranges. So was the absolution of the role of fast-food in elevating ALT justified?
Another interesting point was the way the media handled this study when its outcomes first came to light. One section of the media, obviously taken in by the title under which the research was published, and obviously not having read the paper in toto, hailed the report as yet another evidence of how evil fast-foods are. A second section pounced upon the former, pointing out that the real culprit was not fast-food but the beverage, silly! And from another corner came a third section that sang praise of how fast foods had been found to increase HDL (good cholesterol) levels (which any ways happens when you gorge on such quantity of fast-food, a positive albeit trivial side-effect). [Google on the words "steatosis", "fast-food", "ALT".] In the midst of this cacophony, the findings of the experiment - higher BMI, higher resistance to insulin, and elevated ALT and HTGC levels caused by the fast-food-sweetened-beverage combo - got lost and were not projected to the lay reader in the proper light. Which is a pity, for this is after all what the role of the media is - to cut to the chase and lay the bare, essential truth in black and white.
Anyway, in case you weren't aware already, now you know. If you are a habitual consumer of the fast-food-sweetened-beverage combo (and it is doesn't really matter who the real perpetrator among the two is), then beware! Your dietary habits may not be doing you any good.
[We go out to eat junk-foods not only because they are convenient and easily within reach. Look around, and you will find more joints selling junk-foods than fresh fruit and vegetables! This is how economics works. No, convenience and easy reach are not the only reason. We also go out to eat junk-foods because somewhere during the process of living, we decided to punish ourselves, and abusing the body became one form of atonement. May be this article will shed more light on this perspective? "Do You Have A Bit Of Dobby In You?"]