Could Drinking Just One High-Fat Milkshake Mimic Heart Disease?

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Consuming a single high-fat milkshake causes the body to produce an immune response that mimics the symptoms of heart disease, says a study appearing in the journal Laboratory Investigation.

A small study of healthy males found that eating a 1,000-calorie milkshake that contained 80 grams of fat led to a troubling change among the men’s red blood cells. Essentially, the cells turned into spiky, misshaped harbingers of heart disease that mirrored the red blood cell activity behind cardiovascular problems in prior animal studies.

Credit: Paul Istoan/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

“Your red blood cells are normally nice and smooth and beautiful and the cells, after consumption of a high-fat meal, get these spikes on them,” said study author Dr. Julia Brittain, vascular biologist at the Medical College of Georgia’s Vascular Biology Center.

The body has about 25 trillion red blood cells and they perform critical functions, such as conveying oxygen and nitric oxide, a substance that allows blood vessels to relax. After just one high-fat meal, however, the blood cells saw a significant – and rapid – transformation.

“They changed size, they changed shape, they got smaller,” said co-author Dr. Ryan A. Harris, clinical exercise and vascular physiologist at Medical College of Georgia.

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The researchers also found that after the high-fat indulgence, the study participants’ red blood cells emitted dangerous levels of an enzyme known as myeloperoxidase, or MPO, which previous studies have linked directly to constrained blood vessels and the incidence of heart attack.

Other studies have found that high levels of MPO can react dangerously with the body’s “good” cholesterol, which normally protects the body from cardiovascular disease.

“Myeloperoxidase levels in the blood are directly implicated in heart attack,” said Dr. Neal Weintraub, a practicing cardiologist and associate director of Medical College of Georgia’s Vascular Biology Center.

“This is a really powerful finding,” added Weintraub.

As a counterpoint to the study participants who consumed the high-fat milkshake, the researchers had several people eat the same amount of calories in a meal that was rich in sugar but devoid of nearly all fat. They found no detrimental changes to the red blood cells among the group that only consumed the high-sugar meal.

Related: Researchers Study How Fat Content Affects Ice Cream Taste

In previous studies on mice, the researchers discovered that animals continuously fed a high-fat diet had long-term changes to their red blood cells that were similar to what they found in humans. In both cases, the high-fat meal led to a significant immune response that is similar to an infection and is a risk factor for heart disease.

“We see this hopefully as a public service to get people to think twice about eating this way,” said Weintraub.

The good news is that the harmful effects abated after the initial assessment that took place four hours after the milkshake consumption.

“The take-home message is that your body can usually handle this if you don’t do it again at the next meal and the next and the next,” noted Brittain.

Weintraub notes that a focus on healthy eating and regular exercise can limit the risk of heart disease, even among those predisposed to it.

Richard Scott

Richard Scott is a health care reporter focusing on health policy and public health. Richard keeps tabs on national health trends from his Philadelphia location and is an active member of the Association of Health Care Journalists.