Fast food chains and restaurants should provide a side-order of statin drugs free of charge so that customers can neutralise the unhealthy effects of burgers, chips and other fatty food, experts said yesterday.
Researchers from Imperial College London said that taking a low dose-statin — a pill designed to lower cholesterol — could offset the increased risk of a heart attack after eating a cheeseburger and a milkshake.
Although the drugs don’t cut out the health risks of fatty foods completely, they could be offered in fast-food restaurants alongside unhealthy condiments such as ketchup and mayonnaise, the researchers suggest.
But the British Heart Foundation warned that the drugs should not be considered a “magic bullet” against the risk of heart attacks and strokes, which kill about 140,000 Britons a year.
Darrel Francis, who led the latest research at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial, said: “Statins don’t cut out all of the unhealthy effects of burgers and fries. It’s better to avoid fatty food altogether.
“But we’ve worked out that in terms of your likelihood of having a heart attack, taking a statin can reduce your risk to more or less the same degree as a fast food meal increases it.”
The number of British adults taking cholesterol-lowering statins has doubled to six million in the past five years despite concerns that they are being over-used and have unpleasant side-effects.
Mostly the drugs are prescribed by a doctor, to patients at particular risk of a heart attack or stroke, to reduce the amount of unhealthy “LDL” cholesterol in the blood.
But one statin, simvastatin, is already available in low doses (10mg) over the counter at pharmacies without a prescription. Doctors are divided on the benefits of the drugs for otherwise healthy people, however.
The Imperial College researchers point out that the cost of the tablets has fallen sharply in recent years, from about £40 a month to £1.50 a month.
Dr Francis said yesterday that it was “ironic” that people are free to take as many unhealthy condiments in fast food outlets as they like, “but statins, which are beneficial to heart health, have to be prescribed”.
“Everybody knows that fast food is bad for you, but people continue to eat it because it tastes good,” he said. “We’re genetically programmed to prefer high-calorie foods.
“It makes sense to make risk-reducing supplements available just as easily as the unhealthy condiments that are provided free of charge. It would cost less than 5p per customer — not much different to a sachet of ketchup.”
Previous research has shown a clear link between total fat intake and blood cholesterol, which is strongly linked to heart disease. Recent evidence suggests that trans fats, which are found in high levels in fast food, are the component of the Western diet that is most dangerous in terms of heart disease risk.
In a study to be published in the American Journal of Cardiology this week, Dr Francis and colleagues analysed data from a large cohort study to quantify how a person’s heart attack risk increases with their daily intake of total fat and trans fat.
They compared this with the decrease in risk from various statins, based on a meta-analysis of seven randomised controlled trials.
The results showed that most statin regimes are able to compensate for the relative risk increase from eating a cheeseburger and a small milkshake.
“When people engage in risky behaviours like driving or smoking, they’re encouraged to take measures that minimise their risk, like wearing a seatbelt or choosing cigarettes with filters,” Dr Francis added. “Taking a statin is a rational way of lowering some of the risks of eating a fatty meal.”
A very small proportion of regular statin users experience significant side effects, with problems in the liver and kidneys reported in between 1 in 1,000 and 1 in 10,000 people.
The Imperial researchers said statins have among the best safety profiles of any medication, but they said studies should be conducted to assess the potential risks of allowing people to take statins freely, without medical supervision.
A warning on the packet could emphasise that no tablet can substitute for a healthy diet, and advise people to consult their doctor for more advice, Dr Francis said.
However, the idea has practical drawbacks, including that restaurants or food chains may require a license from medicines regulators before they could distribute medication.
Professor Peter Weissberg, Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation added: “The suggestion that the harmful effects of a junk food meal might be erased by taking a cholesterol-lowering statin tablet should not be taken literally,” he said.
“A junk food diet has a wealth of unhealthy consequences beyond raising cholesterol. It can cause high blood pressure through too much salt, or obesity through eating meals loaded with calories. These are all risk factors for life-threatening health problems such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke.
“Statins are a vital medicine for people with — or at high risk of developing — heart disease. They are not a magic bullet.”