Friday, May 17, 2013

New study: fast food tied to childhood asthma

As a climate activist, I often work alongside people with different agendas regarding air pollution.  My main concern is climate change, but some of my fellow activists are focused on health effects of air pollution in the here and now -- effects such as asthma. At meetings about coal pollution, asthma is a recurrent topic. According to the CDC, at least 1 in 12 people in the U.S (8% of the population) have asthma. The air quality in my hometown of Charlotte is among the worst in the nation, largely due to the numerous coal plants around here, operated by the nation's largest electric utility, Duke Energy.

Well-known triggers of asthma attacks

You probably know that airborne irritants are considered common triggers for asthma attacks. The CDC urges those with asthma to avoid smoke, car exhaust, mold, etc. Those warnings are consistent with the commonly-held (and accurate) notion that air quality is a big factor in the asthma picture.

Asthma and fast food

Knowing the connection between asthma and foul air, I was surprised to read a recent study that links asthma and fast food! How could fast food cause asthma? Not sure, but the link seems to be real. The study that suggests this connection is huge.

Severe asthma linked to eating fast food 3 or more times per week

Philippa Ellwood at the University of Auckland in New Zealand surveyed food and health data from more than a half-million people in dozens of different countries. Respondents included 13- and 14-year-old students, and the parents of 6-7-year-olds. The respondents were asked to write down the type and frequency of food eaten over a 12-month period. After analyzing the survey results, Ellwood and her colleagues found an increased risk of "severe asthma" in adolescents and children who consumed fast food three or more times per week. The link between asthma and fast food was consistent regardless of the child's gender or family income.

Fast food also linked to eczema, nasal congestion, red eyes

The survey also revealed a connection between the consumption of fast food and severe eczema in both age groups of children. The study found as well a link between fast food consumption and "nasal congestion, itchy or runny nose, sneezing and red eyes" - symptoms we often associate with an allergy to airborne irritants.

How could fast food cause asthma?

Ellwood did not analyze the cause of the link between fast food and asthma, but reported that "biologically plausible" causes could include the high levels of saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sodium,carbohydrates and sugar in fast food.

The published report didn't say this, but I'm wondering if weight gain may be part of the story. High consumption of fast food is known to be associated with weight gain. And weight gain has been reported to increase asthma symptoms.

Foods that may offer asthma protection

On the positive side, Ellwood and her colleagues reported that consuming fruit and milk at least three times weekly seemed to protect children in both age groups from asthma. Eating vegetables, cereal and eggs appeared to reduce the risk of asthma in the younger group more than in the 13- and 14-year-olds. Of course, it seems evident from the report that keeping fast-food consumption low could help too!

To read more

The abstract or summary of Philippa Ellwood's published study is here. To read the report of this study in Science News, click here.

Previous post on fast food

One of my previous posts on the hazards of fast food: New studies: fast food "kids meals" loaded with calories and fat