Should Cheeseburgers Be Served With a Side of Statins?

Despite copious warnings from health care professionals, national health organizations, and Michelle Obama, Americans’ demand for lightning-fast food (without much thought to its nutritional profile) remains higher than ever.

It must have been resignation to this dismal reality that prompted a seemingly outlandish suggestion by Darrel P. Francis, MA, MD: serve statins in fast food restaurants.

“A generic statin could be added to the panoply of items in the self-service tray, at little marginal cost, in combination with other healthy lifestyle suggestions,” he wrote in an editorial published in the American Journal of Cardiology. Dr. Francis and colleagues at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London decided to see just how far-fetched the idea was.

Using data gathered from previous studies, they set out to calculate the ability of cholesterol-lowering drugs to “neutralize” the impact of an iconic fast food meal—a 1/4 lb. cheeseburger and a milkshake.

The team estimated statin effectiveness using a recent meta-analysis of statins in the prevention of coronary artery disease, which included 7 randomized controlled trials involving 42,848 patients. To determine the impact of dietary fat on cardiovascular risk, they consulted results from a large cohort study of 43,757 male health professionals.

After plotting the logarithms of relative risks for both dietary fat intake and statin use, Dr. Francis and his team concluded that most statins—with the exception of pravastatin—were strong enough to counteract the adverse effects of a once-daily cheeseburger and milkshake habit.

The researchers were careful not to interpret the finding as a free pass for fast food junkies, however. “This does not mean that we should disregard nutritional education in prevention of cardiovascular disease,” they wrote. “But it should be recognized that nonpharmacologic measures alone may sometimes be insufficient.”

True to its drive-through routes, the idea comes branded with its own catchy name, MacStatin, and a forward-looking “vision statement” from its conceivers:

“We envisage a future in which fast food restaurants encourage a holistic approach to healthy living. On ordering an unhealthy meal, the food will arrive labeled with a warning message similar to those found on cigarette packets (‘This meal increases your risk for heart disease and death’), and on the tray, next to the ketchup, will be a new and protective packet, ‘MacStatin.’”

An abstract of the editorial, published online in the American Journal of Cardiology on August 7, 2010, is available here.