- Fast food poses certain health risks when consumed regularly, and experts are working to understand its full risks, particularly regarding liver health.
- A recent study found that consuming 20% or more of daily food intake from fast food sources can increase the risk for nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
- The risks for developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease may be highest for people with obesity or diabetes, the research notes.
Fast food is readily available in the United States and many other countries in the world as a quick meal choice, but it can be unhealthy to eat this type of food regularly.
A recent study published in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology examined the impact of fast food consumption among adults in the U.S. and its relationship to fat buildup in the liver.
The researchers found that consuming 20% or more of daily calories from fast food can increase the risk of developing fatty liver disease, also known as steatosis.
The dangers of fast food consumption
Fast food offers convenience to consumers, and eating fast food is highly popular in the U.S. For example, picking up a pizza or fried chicken is often quicker than preparing a meal at home. However, fast food choices often have high amounts of added salt and fat and may not be a good source of certain nutrients.
Tarra Bassi, board certified nutrition specialist, who was not involved in the study, explained to Medical News Today:
“Food served at fast-food restaurants is often high in fat, calories, and sugar but low in nutrients and fiber. While eating the occasional fast food meal isn’t a problem, consuming it regularly may raise your risk of obesity, heart attack, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, and other health issues.”
One disorder of interest related to fast food consumption is nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) or nonalcoholic hepatic steatosis. This a broad category of liver conditions that have to do with fat accumulation in the liver and the liver damage this buildup can lead to.
People with nonalcoholic fatty liver disease can experience cardiovascular disease, liver cancer, or end-stage liver disease as complications.
Fast food and fatty liver disease
This study included adults ages 20 and older and utilized data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Researchers analyzed data from dietary recall surveys and measured steatosis within specific parameters.
In their analysis of almost 4,000 adults, 29% received 20% or more of their daily calories from fast food sources.
Researchers found that 20% or more of daily intake from fast food was associated with increased steatosis. This association risk was most pronounced among people who had obesity or diabetes.
Thus, the researchers say, the people in these groups could see more detrimental effects on their livers than those in the general population.
Dr. Ani Kardashian, a hepatologist with Keck Medicine of USC, explained the key results to MNT:
“Eating at least one-fifth of total daily calories from fast food (which is true of 29% of the U.S. population!) can increase the risk of fatty liver, which can lead to cirrhosis and its complications, including liver failure and liver cancer. The negative effects are particularly severe in people who already have diabetes and obesity.”
Dr. Kardashian noted that the study’s results could motivate people to make healthier food choices.
“My hope is that this study encourages people to seek out more nutritious, healthy food options and provides information that clinicians can use to counsel their patients, particularly those with underlying metabolic risk factors, of the importance of avoiding foods that are high in fat, carbohydrates, and processed sugars,” she said.
The study did have a few limitations. First, because it was observational, it cannot prove that fast food consumption causes fatty liver disease.
Researchers could also not account for certain factors like geographic characteristics. They further note that the methods they used to measure steatosis only allowed for a certain level of accuracy. Thus, further research could work to employ more precise measurement methods.
Finally, fast food intake measurements relied on self-reporting from participants, which has the risk of certain inaccuracies.
Dr. Kardashian underscored that more research would be needed to fully “understand the impact of social determinants of health and food insecurity on fast food consumption in people with chronic diseases.”
“We also need to design, implement, and research healthy food interventions for people with metabolic conditions who are at high risk of developing fatty liver to better understand whether they can reverse or improve fatty liver,” she added.
Taking steps toward healthier eating
Overall, the study serves as a warning of the potential dangers of regular fast food consumption.
With this knowledge, people can make lifestyle changes with help from specialists as needed.
Jennifer Valdez, registered dietician with Memorial Hermann in Houston Texas, who was not involved in the study, noted to MNT that this study showed an important association between fast food and disease risk.
“This study showed that the more frequently someone eats fast foods, the higher the risk for developing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. What was really interesting to me, is that this risk is even higher in people who have co-morbidities, such as diabetes [or] obesity,” she said.
“Healthcare providers should be targeting this population [with comorbities] in order to provide [preventive] and crucial healthy lifestyle counseling… Always feel encouraged to advocate for yourself during yearly check-up with your PCPs and ask for diet/lifestyle advice. Reach out to a registered dietitian for advice on how to make appropriate, sustainable diet changes.”
— Jennifer Valdez, registered dietician
How to reduce fast food consumption
Tarra Bassi further offered a few lifestyle tips for people to reduce their fast food consumption:
- Start small: To decrease your fast food consumption, start small by cutting down the number of days you are consuming it. For example, if you are eating fast food five days per week, cut it down to three days per week; and keep reducing the number of days each week or biweekly.
- Meal plan: Start planning your meals for the week or at least five days of the week. Planning out your meals allows you to be prepared, so you don’t rely on getting fast food for a last-minute meal.
- Eat balanced meals: Be sure your meals are complete with a carbohydrate/fiber, protein, and fat. This will balance your blood sugar, reduce cravings, and help you feel full and satisfied.
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