The More Fast Food We Eat, the More Potentially Harmful Chemicals in Our Bodies, Study Finds

Yet another reason to embrace home cooking.

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Fast food is in the spotlight again for its potentially harmful health effects, but this time it's not about calories, saturated fat, or antibiotics — it's about the packaging.

In an April 2016 study, researchers at the Milken Institute School of Public Health (SPH) at George Washington University found that people who eat more fast food have higher levels of phthalates — a group of potentially harmful chemicals used to make plastics soft and flexible — in their urine than people who rarely eat fast food. The researchers linked the phthalates to the food packaging materials, tubing for dairy products, and other items used in fast-food production.

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But don't start counting the number of times you've eaten from a plastic container just yet: Phthalates are found in hundreds of other products we're often exposed to — from vinyl flooring to shampoo — and because of that, there are measurable levels of many phthalate metabolites in most people, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control.

But this study — which looked at data from 8,877 participants — found that those who ate the most fast food had phthalate levels up to 40 percent higher. Detected through urine samples, two specific phthalates — DEHP and DiNP — were found in higher breakdowns in participants who ate more fast food than those who didn't. The researchers found that grains and meats contributed more to phthalate exposure than other foods.

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This is a concern because phthalates have been linked to a number of serious health problems in children and adults, according to lead study author Ami Zota, ScD, MS, assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at the Milken Institute SPH.

In fact, Congress banned the use of DEHP in kids' toys back in 2008, as well as limited the use of DiNP to less than 0.1 percent in any kids' product that could be placed in a child's mouth.

While the health effects of phthalates on humans are still being researched, some studies have suggested that exposure to high levels of some types of phthalates could possibly damage the male reproductive system and lead to infertility, birth defects, or other childhood illnesses and problems.

It's important to note that this study does not prove cause and effect; it merely establishes a link between phthalate levels and fast food consumption. There's been no conclusive evidence linking the phthalates in fast food to health problems, either, and larger studies looking into this could take years to complete. In the meantime, if you're concerned about the potential risk of exposure to phthalates, Zota recommends less take-out.

"People concerned about this issue can't go wrong by eating more fruits and vegetables and less fast food," she said in a statement. "A diet filled with whole foods offers a variety of health benefits that go far beyond the question of phthalates."

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