Young adults who frequently eat fast food are far more likely to gain weight and develop type 2 diabetes than those who don't, researchers have found. "While this sounds like a...

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MINNEAPOLIS — Young adults who frequently eat fast food are far more likely to gain weight and develop type 2 diabetes than those who don’t, researchers have found.

“While this sounds like a no-brainer, there really isn’t much science at all” linking fast-food diets to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, said Mark Pereira, assistant professor of epidemiology in the University of Minnesota’s School of Public Health. “It could be argued that this is a first-of-its-kind study.”

Obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes while diabetes, in turn, is a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Together, they annually cause hundreds of thousands of premature deaths and cost billions of dollars to treat.

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Pereira and his colleagues found that young adults who consumed fast food more than twice a week gained 10 additional pounds and had twice the risk of diabetes than those who ate fast food less than once a week.

Results of the study will be published in tomorrow’s edition of the British journal The Lancet, just in time for New Year’s resolutions, Pereira said.

Other researchers who participated in the study were from Children’s Hospital in Boston, Northwestern University Medical School in Chicago, the University of Utah Medical School in Salt Lake City and the University of Oslo in Norway.

Researchers followed 3,031 young adults for 15 years, beginning in 1985. During that period, they were queried repeatedly about dietary habits, weighed, measured and had blood-sugar levels tested.

Participants ranged in age from 18 to 30 and lived in four study areas: Minneapolis; Birmingham, Ala.; Chicago; and Oakland, Calif. The groups were about evenly divided between white and black, men and women, Pereira said.

“The more fast food they ate,” Pereira said, “the more likely they were going to gain weight and increase their risk of developing type 2 diabetes. The more frequently they went to these restaurants, the worse their diets were.”

Fast-food restaurants first appeared in the 1950s. The nation’s 247,115 fast-food outlets have grown into a dominant dietary pattern, researchers said. As a result, fast-food consumption by children has increased from 2 percent of total energy in the late 1970s to 10 percent in the 1990s.

Increased consumption of sugar, salt and fat leads to excess body weight and boosts insulin resistance, a precursor to diabetes, Pereira said.

“The predictions for diabetes worldwide for the next 20 or 30 years are really daunting,” he said. “It will lead to some bankruptcies in the health-care industry.”

Obesity, on the other hand, annually causes an estimated 300,000 deaths and triggers at least $100 billion in medical expenditures.

Pereira placed part of the problem on the fact that meal and soft-drink sizes have increased consistently in the past 15 to 20 years. “Portion sizes are enormous, with lots of calories but not a lot of nutrients. There’s lots of sugars and starches and the wrong kinds of fats and poor-quality protein.”

Super-sized meals are “a bargain for the wallet but not for the waistline or the emergency room,” he said.

While the fast-food industry is starting to make some improvements in the types of food it offers, “they are only baby steps,” Pereira said.