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A single high-fat meal can set the stage for heart disease, reports a new study—but repeated high-fat meals are where the damage really occurs.

Kelsey Ogletree
May 21, 2018

So you follow the 80/20 rule, eating healthy foods 80 percent of the time, and perhaps less so the other 20 percent. Everything in moderation is key, right? Well, maybe not. A single high-fat meal can set the stage for heart disease, reports a new study from Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

In the study, scientists examined the blood vessels of a group of healthy young men before and after they drank high-fat milkshakes made with whole milk, heavy whipping cream, and ice cream (about 80 grams of fat and 1,000 calories). Four hours after consuming the milkshake, they found the men’s blood vessels were less able to relax—plus, their bodies experienced an immune response similar to when an infection occurs.

The healthy males in the study did not experience the same harmful changes in their blood after consuming another meal with the same number of calories, but no fat (three large bowls of sugar-coated cereal flakes with nonfat milk).

This study was one of the first to look specifically at the effects of a high-fat meal on red blood cells, which carry oxygen and are typically flexible so they can easily flow through blood vessels. But after one high-fat meal, these cells changed size and shape, essentially growing spikes, reports one scientist. In the cells and blood of the test group, scientists found myeloperoxidase—an enzyme expressed by a type of white blood cell that, at high levels, is linked to stiff blood cells and heart attacks in humans.

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Darron Cummings—AP

While the results are a good reminder of how damaging high-fat meals can be to our health, one doctor says the fact that high-fat meals aren’t good for you should come as no surprise.

“If you see someone drinking a milkshake, don’t call 911 yet,” says Dr. Nodor Janas, medical director at Upper East Side Rehab and Nursing Center in New York City.

He says it's “a bit irresponsible” to suggest that one high-fat meal can cause a heart attack, yet points out consuming regular high-fat meals, especially together with carbs, can lead to dangerous vascular conditions. And we already know that diets high in saturated fats, trans fat, and cholesterol have all been linked to heart disease and related conditions, according to the CDC.

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“We need to eat in moderation, where about one-third of our diet should be fat, another one-third carbs, and the rest protein,” says Dr. Janas. The American Heart Association also suggests healthy adults limit their daily saturated fat intake to 13 grams or less.

But, don’t worry, you don’t have to give up ice cream entirely. For the occasional indulgence, slow down to eat less. “It takes 15 minutes for stomach receptors to send information to the brain telling it you’re full,” says Dr. Janas. “If you eat slowly in the beginning of your meal, you may eat a third of the portion you might otherwise eat.”