A single high-fat meal can pave way for heart disease

Heart disease is perhaps the most concerning and frequent public health complication facing America. The risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) has increased as obesity rates in the U.S. (and around the world) continually increase and put more individuals at risk of developing heart disease. Indeed, a March 2018 study published in JAMA (the Journal of the American Medical Association) found 40 percent of Americans are obese, a sharp uptick from just a decade earlier, when around one-third of the population was obese. Also, 7.7 percent of Americans are severely obese, more than the 5.7 percent observed between 2007 and 2008.

As researchers noted, the growing incidence of obesity has given rise to greater complications involving CVD and diabetes, among other conditions, experienced by Americans. However, understanding the risk of heart disease is not as simple as knowing it's unhealthy to be obese. In fact, Dr. James Krieger, clinical professor of medicine at University of Washington, and who was not involved in the study, told The New York Times "[m]ost people know that being overweight or obese is unhealthy ..."

What most people may not know is that just a single high-fat meal can make the possibility of developing CVD all the more real, as a separate recent study found. Key to raising awareness of healthy lifestyle choices and CVD prevention is grasping just how real and ever-present the dangers of heart disease are.

The importance of learning more about heart disease is especially pronounced knowing that it's the leading cause of death among American adults. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease kills 630,000 people a year in the U.S., accounting for 1 in every 4 deaths, making it the single greatest killer of men and women alike. Each minute an American dies from a heart-related event, and each year more than $200 billion in economic losses is caused by heart disease.

What makes the heart disease problem so large-scale is that there are many risk factors that can contribute to developing CVD, including habits seemingly ingrained in many people's lives. Risk factors like smoking, not exercising and — most importantly — not eating right can have profound impacts on a person's likelihood of experiencing heart disease. Diet may be even more important to prevention than once thought.

A single milkshake can wreak havoc 

A recent study from researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, and published in the journal Laboratory Investigation, observed the negative effects on the body and circulatory system that a single high-fat meal can have on a person.

For instance, a single milkshake with fat and calorie contents similar to some oft-eaten restaurant fare can spur troubling changes in the body of an otherwise healthy, young man. Researchers noted four hours after consuming a whole-milk milkshake with whipped cream and ice cream, red blood cells transformed into smaller, spiky cells that "set the perfect stage for cardiovascular disease." Blood vessels were also less able to relax, and the participants had immune responses more like one caused by an infection. 

Though the changes were only temporary, researchers said the the cumulative effect of this type of eating could make developing CVD all the more likely.

"[Y]our 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 Dr. Julia E. Brittain, vascular biologist at the MCG Vascular Biology Center and a corresponding author of the study. "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."

Researchers also saw other changes in white blood cells and plasma (the fluid portion of blood) that also make high-fat intakes all the more concerning. White blood cells themselves became fatter trying to absorb the excessive fat of the meal, while plasma was thick and off-color.

It's critically important that Americans reconsider how and what they eat, as even one high-fat meal can either cause negative health effects, or become a routine that itself becomes a risk to health. As more research into CVD is conducted, people should do all they can to learn more about prevention.