We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: ultra-processed foods don’t do your body any favors. A new study shows that fast food, one of many ultra-processed foods, has now been tied to not only health concerns (diabetes, obesity) associated with consuming high amounts of sodium, fat, and preservatives, but also nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD). NAFLD (read our post, here, for more information), is a diet-sensitive liver disease that can lead to cirrhosis and liver cancer,” one of the researchers of a new study, Ani Kardashian, MD, assistant professor of gastrointestinal and liver disease at the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine explains.
Patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) are usually obese, have insulin resistance and/or metabolic syndrome. According to researchers in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, NAFLD affects up to 25-30% of people in the United States and Europe. Various studies show that NAFLD may be the hepatic (meaning related to the liver) manifestation of metabolic syndrome. This is where researchers have now found the link with consuming fast food.
The study, released January 2023 in Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology, shared that consuming at least 20% of daily calories from fast food correlated with an increased risk for NAFLD, with more damaging effects among individuals with underlying metabolic comorbidities.
“Eating one-fifth of total daily calories from fast food is associated with higher amounts of fat in the liver,” Kardashian said. “While the effects are modest in the general population. . .the effects were significantly more deleterious in people who have underlying diabetes or obesity.”
Some risk factors for NAFLD include:
- Obesity: Obesity involves low-grade inflammation that may promote liver fat storage. It’s estimated that 30–90% of obese adults have NAFLD, and it’s increasing in children due to the childhood obesity epidemic.
- Excess belly fat: Normal-weight people may develop fatty liver if they are “viscerally obese,” meaning they carry too much fat around the waist.
- Insulin resistance: Insulin resistance and high insulin levels have been shown to increase liver fat storage in people with type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
- High intake of refined carbs: Frequent intake of refined carbs promotes liver fat storage, especially when high amounts are consumed by overweight or insulin-resistant individuals.
- Sugary beverage consumption: Sugar-sweetened beverages like soda and energy drinks are high in fructose, which has been shown to drive liver fat accumulation in children and adults.
- Impaired gut health: Recent research suggests that having an imbalance in gut bacteria, problems with gut barrier function (“leaky gut”) or other gut health issues may contribute to NAFLD development. Read more about how a healthy gut is vital to your health here.
But Kardashian shared that there was good news. “We also found that if fast food were eliminated, one in six cases of fatty liver could be prevented among people with diabetes and obesity”. She continued, “These findings are particularly important for people who have diabetes or obesity, who should be counseled that if they consume fast food on a regular basis, their risk of severe fatty liver increases significantly. At a policy level, public health efforts are needed to improve access to affordable, healthy and nutritious food options across the U.S.”
At a time when inflation and the rising cost of food are particularly relevant, more people are finding it difficult to incorporate healthy foods into their diet. If costs weren’t enough of a hurdle, availability of items heightens the challenge to stay on track and fuel our bodies with nutritious foods. Some ideas on how to eat healthy on a budget include:
- Meal plan– It is a common budget killer to be hungry without a plan and to purchase fast-food or other convenience foods at higher prices than we would otherwise consider. Being hungry (hangry!) can push us to make choices against our better judgement! To counteract this, plan ahead. Even if it is just having nutritious, easy snacks that are easy to pack before running out the door.
- Buy in bulk– This option can be difficult if you only have a few people in your household. Do you really need a 5-pound bag of quinoa at home? Probably not in the immediate. But in the long run buying in bulk saves quite a bit of money. If you outline a variety of ways to use the items, they can last a while too. Consider partnering up with another household to get the benefit of the lower cost of buying in bulk, while being able to store smaller quantities of the items.
- Shop the perimeter- Items that are tucked within the aisles are often more convenient, but are also loaded with preservatives, sodium, sugar, and fat. The perimeter is where fresh produce, proteins, and other healthy foods are typically stored. An exception is the frozen food aisles, where you can find frozen fruits and vegetables, picked at their peak ripeness. They have all the nutritional value of fresh produce, but often at a lower price. Since they are frozen, they are great to have on hand when you need to incorporate healthy elements into your meals.
- Go generic- Enticing packaging and smart marketing can pull even the wisest shopper to purchase more expensive items. If you go generic, you can almost always find comparable items for the fraction of a price. Some generics are even manufactured in the same factories as name brands! Some in-house brands that have built a cult following because of their quality and lower prices include Kirkland (owned by Costco), 365 (owned by Whole Foods), Great Value (owned by Walmart), and Good & Gather (owned by Target).
- Check for coupons/ rewards programs- There’s no longer the need to sit down and clip coupons. Technology now makes it incredibly easy to find low prices and promotions with store apps. Often you can link your “coupon” to a customer loyalty account (via phone number, for example), and all the savings comes off right at checkout. Take some time to learn when new promotions start, if you can layer savings, etc.
There’s no denying that fast food is convenient and can be tasty. But the potential damage to your health is enough to give pause. Making smart food choices over the long-term can improve your health and also support your body for those rare occasions you do choose to eat fast food.