Are Happy Meals Being Served Up With a Side of Asthma?

A new study suggests that the costs of fast food may be worse than just a few extra pounds.
With asthma and eczema recently linked to fast food, a five-minute meal-on-the-go doesn't sound so appetizing. (Allen Donikowski/Getty Images)
Jan 15, 2013
Megan Bedard is a sucker for sustainable agriculture and a good farmers market, she likes writing about food almost as much as eating it.

You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that fast food isn't good for kids. But a new study has revealed something far more sinister: In addition to subjecting kids to high calorie and fat counts, fast food also might increase their chances of having asthma, eczema, and a nasal inflammation called rhinoconjunctivitis. 

Yep, you read that right. Time magazine reports the specifics: "Eating fast food meals at least three times a week was linked to a 39% increased risk of severe asthma in teenagers and a 27% increased risk among children between ages six and seven," says Time's Alexandra Sifferlin.

The study, published in the medical journal Thorax, was conducted by a group of European researchers who looked at data on 400,000+ children, ages 6 to 7 or ages 13 to 14, in more than 50 countries. What they found was a correlation between youths' fast-food eating habits and their odds of having severe asthma, eczema, and rhinoconjunctivitis.

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Kids and teens responded to questionnaires asking them how often they ate different kinds of foods (fast foods, as well as fish, fruit, vegetables, bread, pasta, rice, nuts, eggs, and others) and whether they'd experienced asthma attacks and other allergy symptoms. The surveys also asked kids how severe the asthma and allergy symptoms were.

Based on what kids and teens reported, the researchers say fast food is a risk factor for allergies and asthma. 

Eating fruit several times a week, on the other hand, seemed to have a protective effect against the same allergies, researchers said—which is promising, Clifford Basset, MD, fellow of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (ACAAI), tells TakePart. 

“One positive aspect of the study is that if your child or teenager has fresh fruit three times a week, it could have a potentially protective effect against athsma," Basset said. 

The study found that eating fruit three times a week was associated with an 11 percent decrease in severe symptoms in teens and a 14 percent drop in severity of suffering in kids.

The study did not conclude a causal relationship between fast food and the allergies, but suggested that conclusive findings could cause a splash. "If the association between fast foods and the symptom prevalence of asthma, rhinoconjunctivisit and eczema is causal, then the findings have major public health significance owing to the rising consumption of fast foods globally," the study said. 

Fast food consumption is in fact rising, and with it, so is obesity—particularly among children. A 2007 study by researchers at Harvard found that childhood obesity increased almost fourfold and asthma rates doubled between the 1980s and 2007, reports Bloomberg, and an association between asthma and obesity "supports the theory that sedentary behavior diminishes lung function."

But before you tear the cheeseburger out of your child's hand—at least out of fear of allergy onset—it's important to understand that more than one factor can impact allergy susceptibility.

"Although the data from this large, well-designed study from Europe does suggest that fast foods and certain diets predisposed children to asthma and eczema, it also may have been influenced by lifestyle differences as well," allergist Stanley Fineman, MD, immediate past president of ACAAI, tells TakePart. "These were not directly reported in this study, but we do know that allergies, asthma and eczema are inflammatory diseases that are multifactorial."

Still, over-indulging on fast food can have plenty of other fallouts, like obesity-related illnesses. A new study from University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) gives reason to think twice before feeding your kiddos fast food. Analyzing 2007 data on 43,300 children ages 10 to 17, the study found that health problems related to obesity can show up more immediately than previously thought.

"Compared to kids who are not overweight, obese children are at nearly twice the risk of having three or more reported medical, mental or developmental conditions," says UCLA's Anna Albin says in a UCLA news release. Overweight children had a 1.3 times higher risk. Obese children are more likely than their healthy-weight peers to suffer attention deficit disorder (ADD); depression; conduct disorder; learning disabilities; developmental delays; bone, joint, and muscle problems; headaches; ear infections; and asthma and allergies, according to the study.

For parents who want to play it safe, healthy food is a pretty clear choice.

Basset acknowledges that enticing kids to stick to diets of fresh fruits, leafy greens and healthy carbohydrates may not always be reasonable, but he encourages parents to share with their children the potential negative side effects of eating fast food more than three times a week, and to consult a local physician about diet specifics.

So what should you stock your fridge with? Foods with Vitamin D, says Basset, to boost lung function. He also recommends regular doses of Vitamin C and magnesium, which you can find in black cherries, tahini, and papaya. 

"I'm not going to try to say [that you] can't eat fast foods, but I encourage parents to reduce the frequency and consider the alternatives," he says. 

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