Researchers led by doctors at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) on Jan 14 published the results of a huge study—the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC)—which examined the association of diet and childhood eczema and asthma. They found interesting and strong connections.
The researchers evaluated the diet and medical histories of 319,000 teenagers and 181,000 younger children aged 6 and 7 from 51 countries, including Brazil.
Eczema is a common skin condition characterized by dry, red, scaly, and very itchy skin patches. It is not life threatening, but can be very unsightly and inconvenient, and is difficult to cure. Eczema is an inflammatory condition, and many cases have an allergic cause related to food or something else in the environment. Eczema is a manifestation of an overly active immune response— the body is showing, through the skin, a reaction to something it does not “like”.
Asthma is also a manifestation of an abnormal immune response to something noxious to the body. This results in swelling and inflammation of the small to medium-sized airways in the lung, with wheezing and difficult breathing. Asthma can be debilitating and in severe cases, even life threatening, and unfortunately the incidence of asthma in children has doubled in the past 30 years. Environmental factors are suspected as the reason for the increase.
The ISAAC research found that teenagers who ate fast food three or more times per week had a 39% greater chance of developing severe asthma, and a 70% increased risk of severe eczema. For the younger children, the increased risks for severe asthma and eczema were 27% and 30% respectively. The children and teens also had a higher incidence of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis (stuffy and itchy eyes and nose).
Important also is that fruit consumption had the opposite effect. The children and teens who ate fruit at least three times a week had a 10 to 20% lower risk of eczema, asthma, and allergic eye and nose symptoms. So, fast food consumption markedly increased the risk for the kids, but eating fruits regularly was protective.
Why would fast food be “pro-inflammatory” and stimulate the immune system to do bad things, and fruits have the opposite effect? Other research has implicated the high content of trans fatty acids in fast foods as the likely culprit.
Trans fats are considered the worst possible type of fats that we can eat (worse even than saturated fats). They are formed when polyunsaturated fats are converted to trans fats during food processing. That is one reason it is best to eat foods in the most natural forms you can, and fast foods are typically the opposite of natural—fast foods are highly processed for maximum taste at minimum production costs, but the cost to your health is high.
Study author Dr. Hywel Williams says the “take away” message is that you don’t have to cut out fast food completely “but to eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and less fast food – (maximum) one or two times per week rather than three or more…” And, though the study was done only in children, it is likely the same dietary effects would be found in adults too.
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