The findings suggest that Western diets – that are rich in fat, salt and sugar – lead to a lifetime of health problems and dramatically increase the risk of stroke or death at a younger ages.
Speaking at the Canadian Stroke Congress, researchers led by Dr. Dale Corbett found that a high-calorie, high-sugar, high-sodium diet – nicknamed the 'cafeteria diet' by the researchers – induced most symptoms of metabolic syndrome in rats after ‘only two months.’
The animals were at an age roughly equivalent to 16 to 22 years in humans at the time of disease onset, according to Corbett, who is the scientific director of the Heart and Stroke Foundation Centre for Stroke Recovery.
"I think we'll soon start to see people in their 30s or 40s having strokes, having dementia, because of this junk food diet," said Corbett. "Young people will have major, major problems much earlier in life."
Lowering the levels of salt, fat, and sugar in processed foods is an ongoing process within the food industry – with many now acknowledging that high levels of these ingredients in some foods is a major issue for the industry.
However, such reductions can be a major challenge for manufacturers because of the vital roles that sugars, fats and sodium play in foods – where they influence flavor, texture, functionality and shelf life to name just a few.
Experts in the area have previously noted a clear need for the food industry to identify technical routes to enable these functionalities to be modified while reducing the concentration of these ‘unhealthy’ ingredients.
Whilst certain fats (like trans-fats) have been successfully removed from many foods, and zero-calorie sweeteners offer opportunities for sugar replacement in certain products, there seems to be an ongoing struggle between health policy targets and the technical challenges of replacing sodium in the battle to successfully reduce levels of salt in many foods.
Corbett highlighted the potential importance of preventing the onset of serious metabolic conditions through exercise and better dietary control: "We're not sure whether metabolic syndrome can be reversed.
“If it can't, and we continue to live and eat like this, then we're each a ticking time bomb of health problems."
In the research, Corbett and his team gave sedentary rats unlimited access to both nutritional food pellets and a daily selection of common junk food items – including cookies, sausage and cupcakes.
The animals were also given access to both water and a 30 per cent sucrose solution designed to imitate soft drinks.
Just like humans, the team revealed that the rats “greatly preferred to consume the treats.”
The team said the animals began to show symptoms of metabolic syndrome after two months – which is equivalent to late adolescence and early adulthood in humans. These rats were at significantly higher risk of stroke and death - at much younger ages - said the researchers.