Driving through California’s Central Valley, despite all the commercial development that’s paved over land once given to agriculture, you can’t help but be at least a little awed by the amount of food grown here. And yet our local counties – San Joaquin and Stanislaus – are junk food paradises.

Fast food dead end

The Modesto Bee recently reported on a study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy showing that Stanislaus County has 5 1/2 times more fast food and convenience stores than outlets for fresh produce – second only to San Bernadino County. San Joaquin isn’t far behind, with 4 1/2 more fast food outlets. The result? In Stanislaus, a 32% obesity rate – tops amongst California’s 24 most populous counties, and among them, the third highest in diabetes rates. San Joaquin can boast a 29% obesity rate and ranks right behind Stanislaus in diabetes. According to the report, areas so packed with fast food eateries are literally “designed for disease.”

The problems don’t end just with obesity and diabetes. Heart disease rates are also elevated, no doubt at least partly due to a newly understood mechanism of trans fat – an abundant substance in industrial foods of all sorts. (Check out this article at A Calorie Counter on the worst fast food offenders.) In vitro studies done by researchers from Methodist Research Institute at Clarian Health in Indianapolis and Indiana University suggest that trans fats “play a role in the induction of pro-inflammatory responses and endothelial cell dysfunction” that contribute to cardiovascular disease. They may also be implicated in at least one type of cancer.

Diets high in fast food contribute to a number of other problems, as well, including liver damage (memorably depicted in Morgan Spurlock’s 2004 documentary Super Size Me). Fortunately, such damage is reversable, as was recently confirmed by Brent Tetri, MD, at St. Louis University, who has studied the metabolic effects of fast food type diets on mice, a study animal metabolically similar to humans. In an article on Science Daily, Tetri is quoted as saying, “The good news is that most people can undo this damage if they change their diet and they keep physically active….If they don’t, however, they are asking for trouble.”

(Need even more motivation to ditch the fast food? Check out the images of Fast Food Ads vs. Reality.)

Of course, fast foods aren’t the only villain here, and a new study on the health status of Central Valley residents just released by the Great Valley Center bears this out. Elevated levels of smoking and heavy drinking, amongst other risk factors, exacerbate all manner of health problems in our region. The report, part of an ongoing series assessing the quality of life in the Central Valley, is available from the Center’s website, as is a brief video highlighting the findings.

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