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Western Diet Linked To Heart Disease, Metabolic Syndrome

People who eat a typical "Western diet" or drink diet soda have a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, according to a study published in the journal Circulation.

"This is a red-alert wake-up call," said Suzanne Steinbaum, director of Women and Heart Disease at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who was not involved with the study.

Metabolic syndrome is the name for a cluster of symptoms that are known to predispose people to cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke. The symptoms include a large waist circumference, high blood pressure, high fasting blood sugar levels, low HDL ("good") cholesterol and high triglycerides. A person with three or more symptoms is considered to have metabolic syndrome.

Researchers had nearly 10,000 people fill out food frequency questionnaires on their eating habits, then categorized them as following either a "Western" diet pattern or a "prudent" pattern. Higher scores in the Western category were given for more consumption of refined grains, red and processed meat, fried food, eggs and soda, and for lower consumption of fruit, vegetables, whole grains and fish. A higher score in the prudent category came from a higher intake of cruciferous vegetables, including broccoli and cabbage; carotenoid vegetables, including squash and carrots; fruit; whole grains; seafood; poultry and low-fat dairy.

People with the highest "Western" score had an 18 percent higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome than those with the lowest score. People with high consumption of meat had a 26 percent greater risk than those with a low consumption. Fried food was also linked with metabolic syndrome.

More surprisingly, the researchers found that the consumption of diet soda increased the risk of metabolic syndrome, while drinking sugary sodas or fruit drinks did not. This is the second study to find such a connection.

"The first time this came up, we didn't believe it," Steinbaum said. "Take two, and it's now part of another large study."

-David Gutierrez