Local researchers document possible link between fast-food consumption and Type 2 diabetes

Paul Mills, senior author of the fast food study. He is a professor and chief of Family Medicine and Public Health at the UCSD School of Medicine.
Paul Mills, senior author of the fast food study. He is a professor and chief of Family Medicine and Public Health at the UCSD School of Medicine.

Researchers at the UCSD School of Medicine found a possible correlation between eating a high-calorie fast-food breakfast, and “leaky gut syndrome,” which could be a factor in developing Type 2 diabetes.

The results of the study were published recently in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. Researchers studied the impact of a McDonald’s breakfast on 30 people, who fell into three groups — healthy people, pre-diabetics, and those previously diagnosed with Type 2, or adult-onset, diabetes.

Researchers made a “strong observation” that a high-calorie, high-carbohydrate diet is associated with leaky gut syndrome, which may in turn increase the likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes, said Paul J. Mills, an Encinitas resident and senior author of the study. Mills is a professor and chief of Family Medicine and Public Health with the UCSD School of Medicine.

The study focused on proteases, which are enzymes that break down proteins in the food we eat, said Mills. Normally, the enzymes remain in the small intestine, but when leaky gut occurs, they can seep into the bloodstream. That can cause damage, said Mills, because they continue to digest proteins, including the insulin receptors on cells in the bloodstream. That could inhibit the body’s ability to regulate glucose levels, leading to diabetes.

“Eating the meal did induce an increase in this leaky gut phenomenon,” Mills said.

Mills said researchers decided to use a breakfast from McDonald’s because it was the closest fast-food restaurant to the La Jolla research center. Each morning, researchers picked up a breakfast consisting of an Egg McMuffin, two hash browns, a glass of orange juice and a McCafe hot chocolate. A series of blood samples were taken from the volunteer participants before and after they ate the meal.

The study found that in all three categories of participants, the amount of enzymes leaking into the bloodstream increased after eating the fast-food meal, said Mills. However, in the healthy people, the amount of proteases was lower, and returned to normal more quickly. The highest protease levels were found in the diabetics, he said, and pre-diabetics were in the middle.

While the study did not provide a definitive link between fast-food meals and development of leaky gut and Type 2 diabetes, said Mills, there is a rise in both obesity and diabetes in the U.S., and high-calorie diets could be a factor.

A follow-up study could compare the effects of a fast-food diet with a lower-calorie, healthier alternative, he said.

Mills’ co-author on the study was Geert Schmid-Schonbein, a professor of bioengineering at UCSD’s Jacobs School of Engineering The study was undertaken as a project by Augusta Modestino, who is working on her doctorate in bioengineering, said Mills.

During his 30-year tenure at UCSD, Mills said he has focused on behavioral medicine, or things that people can do to influence their health, such as diet, exercise and meditation. In particular, he has studied high blood pressure and other issues related to cardiac health.

The study illustrated not only how a fast-food diet could be related to leaky gut syndrome, said Mills, but that a person does not have to eat such meals over a prolonged period of time to impact his or her health.

“This study shows that even one meal has a very dramatic effect,” Mills said.

A healthier diet, then, may reduce the likelihood of developing leaky gut syndrome and/or Type 2 diabetes, Mills said.

Cynthia Knott, a clinical dietician at the UCSD School of Medicine, suggested the following breakfast foods as an alternative to the high-calorie, high-carb fare offered at fast-food outlets:

 Whole grain toaster waffles with reduced sugar syrup, topped with fresh fruit and lower sugar Greek yogurt like Siggi’s - instead of doughnuts.

 English muffin breakfast sandwich: whole wheat English muffin, topped with scrambled egg and low fat cheese, and deli turkey slice (like Oscar Meyer lower sodium nitrate-free turkey breast) – instead of McDonalds’ Egg McMuffin.

 Old-fashioned oatmeal, or any sugar-free/reduced sugar cereal like Kashi GoLean, served with fresh or frozen berries and milk/fortified almond beverage – instead of sugary cereals or instant oatmeal with added sugar.

Mills said the researchers shared their findings with the participants.

“It’s an eye-opening phenomenon for people to see,” he said. When informed of the impact of the fast-food meal on enzyme levels in the bloodstream, some of the participants said, “OK, I’m going to be changing my diet,” Mills said.