Earlier this year, we heard about a study linking a dramatic rise in obesity in Mexico to the influx of junk food to the country following the 1994 implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. Next came news that American researchers were living in China to study possible causes for a 25 percent increase in the overweight population in the last decade. (Spoiler: a decrease in walkability and increase in fast food is likely to blame.)
Last week, results were released from perhaps the most conclusive and startling study yet connecting health problems abroad to an increase in Western-style fast-food consumption—except this time one of the most ancient and traditional cultures on the planet was the subject.
Researchers in the Singapore Chinese Health Study, which surveyed more than 50,000 Chinese Singaporeans between 45 and 74 years of age, found that eating Western-style fast food on a regular basis significantly increased the risk of diabetes and coronary heart disease.
Specifically, Singapore residents who ate fast food at least twice a week were 27 percent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes than those who ate less fast food. Risk of coronary heart disease among those who ate fast food frequently increased by 56 percent. People are even dying.
“In the 811 participants who reported eating Western-style fast-food items 4 times a week, there were 17 deaths caused by CHD, and this group of participants had a nearly 80 percent greater risk of dying of CHD relative to their peers with no Western-style fast-food consumption,” wrote lead researcher Andrew Odegaard, PhD, of the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
Over the course of five years (1999-2004), study participants were asked about the frequency, type, and portion size of their fast-food consumption. Western-style fast food included burgers, fries, pizza, fried chicken, hot dogs, and other types of sandwiches. The participants were also asked about consumption of foods considered to be Eastern-style snacks and dim sum.
The study’s results will be published in the July issue of the journal Circulation.
Over in mainland China, obesity rates have skyrocketed over the last generation. Between 2005 and 2011, the number of Chinese people who are obese quintupled, to nearly 100 million people. The World Health Organization estimates that 38.5 percent of the population was overweight in 2010, up from 25 percent in 2002. Male children from high-income families have an especially high rate of obesity.
This health crisis in the East has led NYU-Poly researchers Mariela Alfonzo and Kristen Day, along with Zhan Guo of NYU Wagner, to spend time in China looking for connections between its less walkable cities and the rise in obesity. But they’re also likely to conclude that a less active lifestyle almost always goes hand-in-hand with poor eating habits.
The suits behind the Golden Arches evidently aren’t expecting Asians to slow their fast-food consumption: McDonald’s will add 250 new locations to its 1,400 current Chinese stores this year. Bloomberg reported that the fast-food chain generates around 22 percent of revenue from the Asia Pacific, the Middle East, and Africa.
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Steve’s story about healthy fast food was anthologized in Best Food Writing 2011. His food and general interest stories regularly appear in Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other places. Email Steve | @thebostonwriter