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Study: Eat fast food, get fat and sick
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According to a study over 15 years, those who ate a fast-food meal at least twice a week were at least 10 pounds fatter than those who ate fast food less than once a week. (MPR Photo/Tom Scheck)
A new study provides scientific evidence of what many have suspected for a long time: a diet which includes regular helpings of fast food makes people fat and increases their chances of developing diabetes. The study was conducted by researchers at several institutions including the University of Minnesota. They tracked the dietary habits of about 3,000 young people for 15 years.

St. Paul, Minn. — It may be common knowledge that too much fast food is bad for you. But there's been little scientific evidence that links regular fast food consumption with obesity-related diseases.

A University of Minnesota study published in the British-based journal The Lancet documents some of those assumed health consequences. The U of M's Mark Pereira, who co-wrote the study, says he became interested because fast food consumption has increased greatly over the past three decades.

"This is perhaps the prevailing dietary pattern of Western society and we know very little about its effects on health," according to Pereira.

Pereira and five other researchers examined the regular eating habits of 3,000 people between the ages of 18 and 30. After 15 years, they found that those who ate a fast food meal at least twice a week were at least 10 pounds fatter than those who ate fast food less than once a week.

Pereira says they also found that a regular fast-food diet raised the risk factors for type two diabetes, which is linked to obesity.

"People really should be taking a hard look at their diet. One simple change that people could make is reducing their frequency of going to fast-food restaurants and eating more at home," he says.

The findings are significant since health experts say obesity-related diseases are becoming one of the biggest health problems in the United States. Some studies suggest that obesity related diseases cost the U.S. more than $100 billion a year in health care costs.

But it's unlikely this study will prompt a sea change in eating habits. Many people already know fast food is unhealthy, but continue to eat it.

On a wet and rainy afternoon in downtown St. Paul, Aaron Kidd hustles down the street with a McDonald's bag. He says he's not surprised by the study's findings. He says he chooses to eat fast food because it's cheap and efficient. In fact, nothing short of a health problem would stop him from eating fast food.

"Maybe a heart attack that would probably change my view on McDonald's. I don't know. The price is right and it's efficient. That's what gets me," Kidd says.

Many health experts say the fast-food industry won't change its menu items until those types of attitudes change.

Rudolph Leibel, an obesity expert at Columbia University, says the fast-food industry shouldn't be blamed for offering high-calorie, high-fat items. Leibel says restaurants will stop offering those diets when people stop buying it.

"What the fast-food industry is doing is actually responding to a number of very important social pressures that lead people to eat more outside of the house. Not the least of which is that many more households now have many more two wage earners in them than 15 or 20 years ago," according to Leibel.

Leibel believes it will take a massive public health effort to get the public to change eating habits. He says in order to be effective, an anti-obesity initiative would have to cost billions, like the anti-smoking initiatives credited with reducing tobacco use.

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