NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - You might think that people who've had a heart attack might cut back on fast food, which usually has unhealthy amounts of fat and salt.
And in fact, some heart attack patients who are frequent fast food eaters do cut back, researchers found in a new study. But 6 months later, more than half of them can still be found at their favorite fast food places at least once a week.
The researchers who published these findings in the American Journal of Cardiology say the reduction in visits to fast food restaurants is not enough and patients need better dietary education.
"We can do better," Dr. John Spertus, a professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City and one of the authors of the study, told Reuters Health.
Spertus and his colleagues studied nearly 2,500 heart attack patients across the U.S. who filled out surveys while they were still in the hospital. Overall, 884 patients, or roughly one of every three, reported eating fast food frequently in the month before their heart attack. "Frequently" meant once a week or more.
When the researchers checked back 6 months later, 503 were still eating fast food every week.
Those patients - the die-hard fast food eaters - were more likely to be white, male, employed, and without a college degree, compared to patients who didn't go for fast food as often.
They were also more likely to have unhealthy levels of fat in their blood.
"These people are likely increasing their risks and likely not complying with the American Heart Association's recommendations for diet," Spertus said.
Older patients and those who underwent bypass surgery were more likely to be avoiding fast food 6 months later.
The American Heart Association encourages people to eat lean meats and vegetables and to avoid foods high in saturated and trans fats, sodium and cholesterol - hallmarks of cheeseburgers and fried food, Spertus said.
Spertus said his study was not designed to show that eating fast food causes heart disease.
According to the National Institutes of Health, however, saturated fat and cholesterol in food make cholesterol levels in blood go up, increasing the likelihood of heart problems.
The survey also did not ask what menu items people ordered. And Sue Hensley, a spokesperson for the National Restaurant Association, points out that fast food is more than burgers and fries.
"We're seeing trends toward more fruits and vegetables and healthy offerings in restaurants," Hensley told Reuters Health. Those include salads, whole grains and low fat milk.
Spertus and his colleagues note, though, that the people in their study who kept on eating fast food every week tended to have high levels of fat in their blood, "consistent with selection of less healthy options."
Fast food eating is not considered healthy, Spertus said. A study of 3,000 adults published in The Lancet medical journal in 2005 found the more often people ate fast food, the more likely they were to gain weight and develop warning signs of diabetes.
Nine out of 10 patients in the current study had received dietary counseling before they left the hospital, but this didn't seem to affect the odds that frequent fast food eaters would improve their diets. Their behavior shows they need more education after discharge, Spertus says.
"The problem is that patients are absorbing so much information at the time of their heart attack, that I just don't think they can capture and retain all the information they're getting," he said.
Fast food restaurants in the U.S. will soon post calorie, fat, sodium and other nutritional information on their menus, as required by the major health care law that passed last year. Already, cities like New York and Philadelphia mandate calorie counts on menus. It's still up for debate whether such numbers next to food offerings will affect what people order.
The survey is part of a national study called TRIUMPH, which is funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.
Spertus also receives research funds from the American Heart Association.
SOURCE: bit.ly/eAnRdI The American Journal of Cardiology, online February 9, 2011.