The link between eating a high-fat diet and an increased risk of heart problems has long been known amongst doctors, but now a study from the University of Cincinnati has revealed that red blood cells may hold the key to this connection.
Lead researcher Vladimir Bogdanov explained: "Obesity caused by chronic consumption of a high-calorie, high-fat diet is a worldwide epidemic, representing one of the greatest threats to global health.
“White blood cells play a key role in fueling adipose tissue (fat) inflammation and insulin resistance in obesity and also promote the clogging of arteries, or atherosclerosis, setting the stage for heart attack and stroke. While these outcomes linked with a high fat diet and fat in the blood on white blood cells have been shown in animal models and humans, the impact of high fat diets on other bone marrow-derived cells, like red blood cells, is not well defined.”
In a laboratory model, a 60 per cent high-fat diet over 12 weeks was shown to contribute to an increased level of proteins that increase the activity of white blood cells known as macrophages that are bonded to red blood cells in comparison to a control.
Macrophages are responsible for breaking down cellular debris and foreign bodies, but are also involved in the development of atherosclerosis (heart disease characterised by fatty deposits in the arteries).
A high-fat diet was found to lead to increased cholesterol and phosphatidylserine, which is a phospholipid membrane component that regulates cell life cycle. This in turn led to a threefold increase in the number of red blood cells taken up by the spleen, which is where old blood cells go to be broken down. The spleen also controls systemic inflammation.
Professor Bogdanov said: "All of these findings show that the dysfunction of red blood cells, corresponding with dysfunction of the lining of blood vessels, occurs very early in diet-induced obesity and may play a part in the formation of atherosclerosis. Diets high in saturated fat have long been associated with endothelial dysfunction, the precursor to atherosclerosis, but to our knowledge, the effects of high-fat diet on red blood cells have not been rigorously examined."
While most humans do not have cholesterol levels as high as those created in the study, or are treating them with statins, the results represent a previously unobserved mechanism that underpins the negative effects that high-fat diets and obesity can have on cardiovascular health.
Given the widespread impact of heart attacks and strokes, it seems likely that this research will be taken up and used to develop a new generation of treatments to be used in a clinical setting.
It is hoped that this research could also benefit cancer patients who are at increased risk of blood clots and other cardiovascular issues, and it may have the potential to be applied to even more health issues.
The study has been published in the latest edition of the journal Circulation.
Posted by Jeanette Royston
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