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How The News Ruined Your Cheeseburger
August 11, 2006
Rebecca Goldin Ph.D
The media implies long-term damage from a study measuring a few hours

CBS and WebMD must have scared the wits out of anyone enjoying a meal of saturated fat with the headline “Even One Fatty Meal Affects Arteries/According To Researchers Who Found Changes In Only 3 To 6 Hours.

The message, it would seem, is that there are long term effects; these changes were found in just a few hours, after all. And the sense of danger is reinforced by the opening line: “Eating just one fatty meal can have a major impact on your arteries — for better or for worse.”

And the CBS Early Show claimed “The study showed that just one meal high in saturated fat is enough to interfere with the body's ability to protect arteries from the buildup of plaque, which contributes to the hardening of the arteries associated with heart disease.”

There was a similar message online, with dozens of news organizations running an Associated Press story which began with the claim that “Eating just one high-fat meal — in this case, carrot cake and a milkshake — can quickly prevent ‘good’ cholesterol from protecting the body against clogged arteries, a small study shows.”

And the sense of doom was underscored by comments from Dr. Charles McCauley, a cardiologist with Marshfield Clinic in Wisconsin, who reviewed the research, and who told the AP, “What we put into our mouth makes a big difference in terms of our health.”

Well, clearly. But while we prep the crash cart and wait for a heart attack, thanks to that lunchtime visit to McDonalds, we decided to take a closer look at the research, which was undertaken by the Heart Research Institute in Sydney, Australia, and which appears in the August 15 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology. The study, which examined just 14 people, was designed to measure their bodies’ responses to meals high in saturated fat or high in polyunsaturated fat, and compare them.

The small study involved eating two meals spaced a month apart. Three and six hours after the saturated-fat meal, the participants’ blood vessels had reduced ability to expand and contract, and there were more inflammatory agents, linked to a buildup of plaque in the arteries.  This compared unfavorably to those who had a polyunsaturated meal; for these people, there were elevated levels of HDL, or good cholesterol, six hours after the meal.

The very nature of this study is short-term. Just as a meal high in sugar or alcohol will also have measurable short-term effects, the authors of this small study have found subtle and disturbing effects of a meal high in saturated fats. But the media read too much into the study in the search for a good story: one fatty meal can ruin your arteries. And the quotes solicited from experts underscored the sense of immediate irreversible peril: as Dr. James O’Keefe, a cardiologist at the Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City told the AP, “Even one meal of a double cheeseburger with fries and a Coke will mess up your system, let alone a steady diet of it, which is recipe for disaster.”

But this study does not say that. It says absolutely nothing about the state of its subjects’ arteries a month later, or even a day later. The study was not meant to come to any long term conclusions; it was meant to help understand the mechanism by which a diet high in saturated fat can (over many years) lead to clogged arteries.

There is little evidence to suggest that one fatty meal leads to any serious long-term effects. The overwhelming majority of evidence suggests that regular consumption of meals high in saturated fats can have this effect. Instead of tossing out the occasional cheeseburger, we should view this study as one of many suggesting that our diet – that is, our regular eating patterns over months and years – should not contain too much saturated fat.