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updated 4/13/2011 3:40:29 PM ET 2011-04-13T19:40:29

A short-term splurge of high-fat foods could protect the heart from much of the damage of a heart attack soon afterward, new animal research suggests.

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Mice fed high-fat diets for no longer than two weeks suffered less heart tissue damage after an induced heart attack than mice that were continuously fed either a high-fat or low-fat diet, said study researcher Lauren Haar, a doctoral student in biology and physiology at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

The reason for the protective effect is not fully understood, and more research would be needed to determine the human equivalents of the mice's high-fat diet and two-week feeding period.

"The translation of these findings to human work is still a long way off," Haar told MyHealthNewsDaily. Because of the differences between mice and humans, she said, "predicting the relevance of work in mice to humans is not straightforward" and would take research in other animals before it can be applied to humans, she said.

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The findings were presented today at the 2011 Experimental Biology Meeting, sponsored by the American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics.

Mouse diets

Haar and her colleagues separated mice into five groups. One group was fed a high-fat, lard-based diet, with 60 percent of the calories from saturated fats (a contributor to Type 2 diabetes, in humans), for 24 hours, the second group was fed the diet for one week and the third group was fed the diet for two weeks. The fourth group was fed the high-fat diet for six weeks, and the fifth group was only fed a low-fat diet of vegetables and grains.

After each feeding period, researchers induced heart attack in the mice, the study said.

The mice that were fed the high-fat diet for two weeks or less had 70 percent less heart tissue damage than the others, the study said.

"We see the amount of tissue that is damaged in the left ventricle decrease drastically relative to mice on a control diet," Haar said.

For stricken mice that went untreated, this would be the difference between having heart failure and recovering enough to remain healthy for a few months, she said.

Researchers also fed mice a high-fat diet for 24 hours and then had them return to the low-fat vegetable- and grain-based diet for 24 hours before a heart attack. The hearts of these mice were protected from injury from the heart attack, Haar said, confirming further that it's the acute (short-term) high-fat feeding that preserves heart function, and not long-term fat consumption.

A model for future study

Though this study was done in animals, past research suggests that after a heart attack that results in heart failure, people with higher cholesterol levels are more likely to survive than people with lower levels, said study researcher Dr. Jack Rubinstein, assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiovascular diseases and a cardiologist at University of Cincinnati.

"What Lauren has found, and continues to study, is a model to potentially investigate the mechanism for this effect," Rubinstein told MyHealthNewsDaily. However, more research is needed before researchers can fully understand why a short-term, high-fat diet seems to have this protective effect.

Understanding the mechanism of a short-term, high-fat diet on the cellular and molecular levels can reveal for whom the approach is best suited (a person of healthy weight versus someone who is obese, for example), Rubinstein said.

Even though the study shows a possible benefit in certain circumstances from a high-fat diet, past research suggests that a diet low in saturated fats and high in "good" fats – such as monounsaturated fats, found in avocados and olive oil -- helps to keep cholesterol and blood pressure low, which is important for preventing heart disease.

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Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Amanda Chan on Twitter @AmandaLChan.

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