Eating Junk Food—Even Once—Shows Signs of Metabolic Disease in Healthy Individuals

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Eating Junk FoodA recent study published in The FASEB Journal suggests that after consuming just one piece of junk food, the body shows signs of metabolic disease, which can lead to several negative health outcomes, including obesity and diabetes.

Bodies are wonderful machines; they have an incredible ability to maintain homeostasis, or physiologically remain stable, within a very narrow range. For instance, your body maintains a core temperature of around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. If you are running a fever, your body will sweat to cool itself off and get back to its core temperature. If you get too chilly, you will start to shiver to increase movement and your blood circulation will focus on your core to ensure that your organs are kept warm until your body can get back to its normal temperature.

Because of the body’s ability to maintain stability, it provides researchers with the opportunity to study and understand the effects nutrients or nutrition may have on multiple aspects of health. For example, the effects participants experience during a glucose-tolerance test can reveal a lot about glucose metabolism, or how the body regulates blood sugar levels. To run a glucose-tolerance test, participants consume a load of glucose and two hours later, researchers check participants’ blood sugar levels. Healthy participants will have a blood sugar reading within a normal range, whereas those with impaired glucose metabolism would have elevated blood sugar levels.

Another example is the high-fat challenge test, which helps researchers understand lipid metabolism and evaluate the impacts fats have on inflammation and endothelial dysfunction. Endothelial dysfunction is either a result of or a contributing factor to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes, often resulting in heart disease.

Understanding the biological and physiological effects of fat consumption is rather complex. The body is able to adapt to changes and compensate to remain within narrow target ranges, so it compensates for a high fat intake by converting excess fat into triglycerides to be stored in fat cells, leading to weight gain. However, when the body has reached its limited capacity to store fat, fatty deposits appear in other organs, such as the liver. Furthermore, consuming high-fat and high-calorie diets will result in insulin resistance, inflammation, and increased low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or “bad”) cholesterol levels.

In this recent study, researchers investigated the metabolic and inflammatory responses resulting from a high-fat challenge test in both healthy individuals and those with metabolic syndrome.

Metabolic syndrome is defined as having at least two of the following risk factors: high blood pressure, high blood sugar levels, waist circumference greater than 35 inches for females or 40 inches for males, and abnormal cholesterol levels. Metabolic syndrome can lead to serious health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

This explorative pilot study investigated 61 biomarkers in nine individuals with metabolic syndrome and 10 healthy men aged 35 to 50.

Both groups were first given a high-fat milkshake; blood samples were taken prior to and after consuming it. Findings of this first stage revealed that among individuals with metabolic syndrome, abnormalities in sugar metabolism, fat metabolism, and inflammation were evident.

Second, healthy individuals were instructed to follow a high-fat, high-calorie diet for four weeks. The diet added 1,300 calories to the participants’ regular diet. Participants were to continue with their normal lifestyle habits, meaning no additional exercise or alternative therapies were instructed. Additional calories were consumed through foods such as candy bars, sausages, coated peanuts, and full-fat chocolate milk. Dietitians provided guidance on a weekly basis and participants were instructed to maintain food records to monitor compliance.

The findings of this second phase revealed that hormones regulating blood sugar levels, triglyceride levels, and inflammation changed among healthy individuals. These findings suggested that greater exposure to a high-fat, high-calorie diet showed that the negative health consequences as a result of a poor diet could affect healthy individuals in a similar manner as those with metabolic syndrome.

“Eating junk food is one of those situations where our brains say ‘yes’ and our bodies say ‘no’,” concludes Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal Gerald Weissmann. “Unfortunately for us, this report shows that we need to use our brains and listen to our bodies. Even one unhealthy snack has negative consequences that extend far beyond any pleasure it brings.”

Sources for Today’s Article:
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, “Even a little is too much: One junk food snack triggers signals of metabolic disease: Biomarkers that quantify health can help inform prevention strategies for metabolic disease,” ScienceDaily web site, November 2, 2015;
Kardinaal, A.F.M., et al., “Quantifying phenotypic flexibility as the response to a high-fat challenge test in different states of metabolic health,” The FASEB Journal 2015; 29(11): 4600, doi: 10.1096/fj.14-269852.

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Leah Shainhouse, R.D.

About the Author, Browse Leah's Articles

Leah Shainhouse is a Registered Dietitian with the College of Dietitians of Ontario and a member of the Dietitians of Canada. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Honors, in Nutritional Sciences from the University of British Columbia and went on to complete her dietetic training and Master of Science degree in Human Nutrition at McGill University. Leah has a strong desire to help shape the lives of individuals through a healthy lifestyle. She enjoys working with people to help... Read Full Bio »