Healthy fats may restore heart health, researchers find

Foods containing healthy fats

“This gives more proof to the idea that consuming healthy fats like oleate can have a significantly positive effect on cardiac health,” says researcher E. Douglas Lewandowski.


Oleate, a common fat in olive oil, may restore heart health, even after cardiac disease, UIC researchers found.

“This gives more proof to the idea that consuming healthy fats like oleate can have a significantly positive effect on cardiac health,” said E. Douglas Lewandowski, director of the UIC Center for Cardiovascular Research.

Heart failure affects nearly 5 million Americans, with more than half a million new cases diagnosed each year.

Heart failure is not the same as having a heart attack — it is a chronic disease where the heart becomes enlarged in response to chronic high blood pressure, which requires it to work harder to pump blood. As the heart walls grow thick, the volume of blood pumped out diminishes and can no longer supply the body with enough nutrients.

Failing hearts can’t properly process or store the fats they need for fuel, causing the muscle to become starved for energy and creating toxic byproducts that further contribute to heart disease.

The UIC researchers studied laboratory rats to learn how healthy and failing hearts reacted to either oleate or palmitate, a fat found in dairy products, animal fats and palm oil.

When the researchers perfused diseased rat hearts with oleate, “we saw an immediate improvement in how the hearts contracted and pumped blood,” said Lewandowski, senior and corresponding author on the study.

Lewandowski and colleagues tracked the location of fat molecules in the cells of the diseased hearts by tagging them with a nonradioactive heavy isotope of carbon, which is detected using magnetic resonance spectroscopy. This technology allows researchers to watch biochemical reactions, like metabolism, as they occur in real-time in functioning organs. Using this technique, Lewandowski saw that the metabolism of fats within the cardiac cells of these hearts became normalized.

In contrast, when the researchers perfused the diseased hearts with palmitate, fat metabolism was imbalanced, and cells struggled to access fuel. There was also a rise in toxic fatty byproducts — another consequence of impaired fat metabolism.

In addition to balancing fat metabolism and reducing toxic fat metabolites in hypertrophic hearts, Lewandowski said, oleate increased the activation of several genes for enzymes that metabolize fat.

“These genes are often suppressed in hypertrophic hearts,” he said. “So the fact that we can restore beneficial gene expression, as well as more balanced fat metabolism, plus reduce toxic fat metabolites, just by supplying hearts with oleate – a common dietary fat — is a very exciting finding.”

The findings were reported in the journal Circulation.

Ryan Lahey, a student in the College of Medicine Medical Scientist Training Program, is the lead author on the paper. Postdoctoral fellow Andrew Carley and research specialist Xueron Wang are co-authors.

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