- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 12, 2010

Make that a burger, fries and a side of Lipitor, please.

It could happen. As a public service, British researchers are proposing that fast-food eateries dole out complimentary cholesterol-lowering statin drugs to offset the hazardous glories of their fatty cuisines.

“When people engage in risky behaviors like driving or smoking, they’re encouraged to take measures that minimize their risk, like wearing a seat belt or choosing cigarettes with filters. Taking a statin is a rational way of lowering some of the risks of eating a fatty meal,” said Dr. Darrel Francis, a cardiologist at the National Heart and Lung Institute at Imperial College London.

“It’s 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,” he noted.

Representatives from Merck, which manufactures Lipitor, and Pfizer, maker of Zocor, declined to comment on the idea. McDonald’s Corp. also did not respond to an inquiry.

The researchers are nevertheless in praise of statin drugs, pointing out that the medications boast some of the “best safety profiles of any medication,” with side effects - such as complications in the liver and kidneys - reported in between one in 1,000 and one in 10,000 people.

Based on data from medical trials of almost 43,000 people, Dr. Francis calculated that the reduction in cardiovascular risk offered by a low dose of statin is enough to offset the increase in heart-attack risk from eating a cheeseburger and a milkshake. It’s cheap, too.

“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 5 cents per customer,” Dr. Francis said, adding that the cost is about equivalent to one of those little squeezy containers of ketchup.

Is he proposing that all those cheerful, red-aproned, order-taking employees literally hand over a little pill with the french fries?

Why, yes. In its own little wrapping, too.

The researchers suggest that “a warning on the packet” should emphasize that no tablet can substitute for a healthy diet, and advise people to consult their doctor for more advice.

“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,” Dr. Francis said.

Image-conscious McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King and other fast-food outlets are already privy to the potentially positive benefits of healthier fare, providing nutritional breakdowns and offering on their menus a spate of low-fat items and whole-grain buns to assuage guilty - but ever eager - diners.

Next year, the fast-food giants and other restaurant chains will have to supply calorie counts on menus and drive-through signs, thanks to a provision in President Obama’s health care reform legislation that even affects vending-machine manufacturers. The new regulation has irked many free-market fans who see it as yet another symptom of big government and fat-bellied bureaucracy.

Still, public tastes for extreme fried anything have not abated.

A 1,850-calorie Triple Baconator is sizzling, at this very moment, at any Wendy’s. In a nod to state-fair food, Denny’s has introduced the 895-calorie Fried Cheese Melt. Not to be outdone, Friendly’s offers a 1,160-calorie Ultimate Grilled Cheese Burger Melt, while IHOP features Pancake Stackers - cheesecake filling, buttermilk pancakes, bacon - all for a mere 1,250 calories.

And no one appears weary of breakfast fare at McDonalds, home of the 1,370-calorie Big Breakfast, not to mention the Egg McMuffin, an abiding classic with a mere 450 calories.

Of the 37 percent of U.S. adults who report having eaten breakfast at a fast-food chain in the past month, 46 percent ate that meal at McDonald’s, according to a marketing survey by Scarborough Research released Thursday.

A distant 19 percent opted for Dunkin’ Donuts, 19 percent for Starbucks and 12 percent for Burger King, the survey found.

“Everybody knows that fast food is bad for you, but people continue to eat it because it tastes good. We’re genetically programmed to prefer high-calorie foods, and sadly fast-food chains will continue to sell unhealthy foods because it earns them a living,” says Dr. Francis.

His findings will be published in the Aug. 15 issue of the American Journal of Cardiology.

The British Heart Foundation, meanwhile, warned Thursday that a statin pill with dinner could not “erase” the sins of fast food, noting that salt content and calories also come into play.

“Statins are a vital medicine for people with - or at high risk of developing - heart disease. They are not a magic bullet,” the group said.

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