Just four hours after drinking a milkshake made with whole milk, heavy whipping cream and ice cream, a group of young, healthy men started to show the first signs of heart disease: their blood vessels were less able to relax, and their immune system displayed responses similar to one provoked by an infection.
Although the symptoms were temporary, they help explain the rare and isolated cases of a sudden heart attack after a high-fat meal. There's also the more common problem of the cumulative effect among those who regularly consume high-fat drinks and meals, say researchers at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.
"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," said researcher Julia E Brittain.
The researchers specifically monitored the red blood cells of the 10 volunteers who drank the milkshake. The cells, which normally carry oxygen around the body, "grew spikes and spewed poison" within four hours after drinking the milkshake. "They changed size and shape, and grew smaller," said one of the researchers.
The researchers also saw an increase in white blood cell counts in a process known as MPO (myeloperoxidase). At high levels, the cells increase blood vessel stiffness, which can lead to heart disease and eventually a heart attack.
The physiological changes weren't seen in a different group of 10 young men, who were instead given three big bowls of sugar-coated flakes and no-fat milk that had similar levels of calories but with very low-fat content.