The more fast food joints in your neighborhood, the greater the chance you’ll have a stroke according to research out of the University of Michigan. The study, which looked at stroke prevalence in relation to density of fast food restaurants in 64 census areas in Texas, found a 13 percent increase in strokes in those neighborhoods with the most fast-food restaurants, after adjusting for socioeconomic status and demographics. According to the authors of the study, “The association suggested that the risk of stroke in a neighborhood increased by one percent for every fast-food restaurant.”
The neighborhoods with the least number of fast food restaurants counted fewer than 12 within their borders (an astonishing number by itself), whereas the densest fast-food neighborhoods had more than 33. While the researchers admit that they can’t exactly pinpoint the reason for the inflated stroke incidence in the region of the fast-food cornucopia, they insist that there is a link.
As study director Lewis Morgenstern said, “What we don’t know is whether fast food actually increased the risk because of its contents or whether fast-food restaurants are a marker of unhealthy neighborhoods….We need to start unraveling why these particular communities have higher stroke risks. Is it direct consumption of fast food? Is it the lack of more healthy options? Is there something completely different in these neighborhoods that is associated with poor health?”
Naturally, the restaurant industry took umbrage, commenting that the statistics showed nothing about the quality of offerings at the restaurants involved. Beth Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association commented, “This article is seriously flawed and by its own admission shows no correlation whatsoever between dining at chain restaurants and the incidence of stroke. Further, it tells us nothing about the eating and exercise habits of the individuals involved. The restaurant industry continues to offer a growing number of healthier offerings, move away from the use of trans fats and provide more nutrition information.”
She’s right, at least, about the study neglecting to consider the overall eating habits of the neighborhood denizens. But it does seem logical that those living around the corner from a potpourri of fast-food places might frequent them more often than if they had to drive ten miles to reach them. And as for the growing number of healthier offerings, let’s look at the facts:
- A double quarter-pounder with cheese at McDonalds has 740 calories, 42 grams of fat, and 1380 mg of sodium. A “healthier” option, the grilled chicken-club sandwich, has 530 calories and 1470 mg of sodium. Add a small triple-thick shake and you’ve got another 440 calories. To see where eating such delights might lead, watch the movie Supersize Me.
- At KFC, a modest meal of a honey-barbecue chicken sandwich, with a side of coleslaw and mashed potatoes yields 620 calories, 18.5 grams of fat, and 1630 mg of sodium.
- At Taco Bell, a virtuous-sounding “Zesty Chicken Border Bowl, without dressing” yields only 360 calories and eight grams of fat, but 1650 mg of sodium! Then again, who eats a salad without dressing? Add the zesty dressing served with the bowl, and you’re back up to 560 calories, 28 grams of fat, and 1900 mg of sodium.
Yes, these fast-food restaurants have made efforts to eliminate the trans-fats, and that’s a good thing. But let’s be honest here. They screamed bloody murder when that health option was forced on them. I don’t know; is it ethically moral to brag about doing something you were forced to do against your will? And trans fats aside, they still get a failing grade when it comes to many other aspects of nutrition. For example, when we’re talking about stroke, the sodium count from added commercial salt counts for a lot too. According to Dr. David Katz of the Yale Prevention Research Center, “Among the many ills of fast food is an extremely high sodium content. A single highly processed fast food meal may provide a full day’s sodium requirement, or more. “Sodium is a contributor to hypertension; hypertension is a contributor to stroke.”
And yes, it is true that other factors might be at play: more car fumes in areas with lots of fast-food restaurants, for one thing; and yes, fewer parks and recreational areas, and maybe fewer people with the budget to afford a gym membership. There’s also the question of what types of exhaust and waste do these restaurants generate, and what effect does that have on the neighbors. One study found a dramatic increase in lung-cancer rates among women exposed to cooking oil fumes from stir-frying 30 dishes a week. It’s a known fact that cooking fumes emit several types of toxic substances when low-quality oils are used and heated to high temperatures. Also, Teflon-coated pans and pans treated with other non-stick substances give off dangerous fumes when heated. And so, living in a neighborhood rife with oils heating and fries frying and non-stick pans “afuming” can possibly do damage even if you don’t frequent the eateries responsible.
But then again, that would still make them culpable, wouldn’t it?