Cheeseburger, cheeseburger, cheeseburger. Unlike parts of the world where the average dietary regimen is regarded as healthy (think of the fish and vegetable-focused cuisines of the Mediterranean and Japan), the United States is perhaps known for the opposite. With the obesity epidemic worsening, many researchers have sought to connect diabetes and cardiovascular diseases to the American diet, also known as the “western diet.” But, can even short-term exposure to the “American” way of eating increase the risk for developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease? A recent study conducted at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine (NYITCOM) and funded by the American Heart Association (AHA) provides compelling evidence that yes, it can.
Categorized by excessively high levels of fat and refined sugars, the western diet has been proven to cause metabolic syndrome (prediabetes) in male rats. Now, researchers Maria Alicia Carrillo-Sepulveda, Ph.D., assistant professor of Biomedical Sciences, and Benjamin Kramer, a fourth-year NYITCOM medical student, have shown that the western diet can cause equally unsettling results among females—a population with protective hormones that typically aid in preventing cardiovascular diseases.
“Our findings suggest that short-term exposure to the western diet can put individuals at risk for developing vascular damage long before the tell-tale signs of diabetes are present,” said Carrillo-Sepulveda.
For five months, Carrillo-Sepulveda and Kramer exposed animal test subjects to a meal supplement mimicking the typical American diet. For example, they regularly fed the rats pellets that appeared and smelled like fast-food French fries. Following this short-term exposure, the researchers discovered that the rats’ blood vessels displayed signs of damage and increased blood pressure—symptoms commonly associated with diabetics. The rats also developed approximately four times more abdominal fat (a risk factor for type 2 diabetes) than their control group counterparts.
Perhaps the most alarming result of the study is that while vascular damage and increased blood pressure were clearly detected, the female rats did not appear outwardly obese, nor did they demonstrate typical diabetes warning signs, such as an increase in blood glucose and hemoglobin A1c levels.
“This may explain why some diabetics who successfully manage their blood glucose still experience other cardiovascular diseases, like hypertension, even while receiving treatment,” said Carrillo-Sepulveda.
“The problem is the food our patients are eating,” added Kramer. “If we can educate and encourage them to make better food choices, we can play a key role in the prevention of the development of diabetes.”
However, indulging in an unhealthy diet may have lasting repercussions, regardless of attempts to fix it. Even if someone embraces healthy eating habits and physical activity later in life, exposure to the western diet at a young age can affect one’s disposition to diabetes.The phenomenon is known as “metabolic memory,” and Carrillo Sepulveda hopes to explore the theory further as part of her research.
“This experiment reminds us that focusing solely on one aspect of disease does not adequately tell the complete story of one’s health,” said Kramer, who received the 2017 American Heart Association Student Scholarship in Cardiovascular Disease. He noted that the study reinforces the value of an osteopathic medical education, which trains physicians to consider the overarching consequences of disease, and its impact on the care and lifestyle of a patient, rather than simply treating an ailment. “Without the presence of traditional biomarkers, there were still multiple indications suggesting the onset of prediabetes, and we would have been unaware of dire medical conditions had we simply been looking for the conventional signs,” he added.