Eating a diet rich in so-called good fats and low in bad fats can exacerbate acute pancreatitis, according to a new study.
Acute pancreatitis occurs when it becomes inflamed suddenly – a condition associated with gallstones or drinking a lot of alcohol.
Researchers studying the condition found that people who eat high amounts of unsaturated fat – found in healthy foods such as avocado and olive oil – can fair worse than those who eat unhealthier alternatives.
That is because fat stored around abdominal organs of people who eat a diet high in unsaturated fats, can generate a type of fatty acid that triggers cell injury, body-wide inflammation, and even organ failure in acute pancreatitis.
But visceral fat with higher levels of saturated fat – found in cheese and meat – interferes with the production of those fatty acids, which results in a milder case of the condition.
Researchers said their findings might partially explain why people who are obese have better survival rates from acute illness. Studies show obesity improves survival rates in sepsis, when the body damages its own tissues in response to an infection, which has puzzled researchers.
The study was carried out in the US, led by researchers from the world-renowned Mayo Clinic.
Teams assessed 20 clinical reports from 11 countries with cases of the condition among people with a body mass index of 30, which is considered obese, and seven reports of the condition with a body mass index cut-off of 25, which is considered a healthy weight, in addition to dietary fat data from the Food and Agriculture Organisation. Body mass index indicates nutritional status in adults. It is defined as a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of the person’s height in metres
They found a “moderate correlation” between patients with severe acute pancreatitis and their unsaturated fat intake.
The researchers said a severe form of this disease occurred in individuals with lower BMIs in countries that consumed food with fewer saturated fatty acids.
To test how fat composition affects the outcome of pancreatitis outcomes, the researchers fed mice with a diet rich in unsaturated fatty acids or saturated fatty acids.
When they induced pancreatitis in the mice, only 10 per cent of those on the unsaturated fatty acid diet survived after three days compared with 90 per cent of those on a diet rich in saturated fats.
“[The researchers have] found people who eat diets high in monounsaturated fats, which are in certain foods like olive oil and nuts, they found that the incidence of complications after pancreatitis is much higher,” said Dr Yogesh Shastri, specialist gastroenterologist at NMC Speciality Hospital Abu Dhabi.
That suggests saturated fats are not the bad guy they have been painted out to be in the past, he said.
More recent studies show saturated fat can help the liver function more effectively and improve immunity, among other benefits.
Dr Shastri said people tend to be slimmer in areas with high consumption of palm or coconut oil, such as Asia.
Eating everything in moderation is the key to controlling weight, Dr Shastri said.
Experts say obesity may protect in sepsis, but it is associated with poor outcomes in countless other conditions, including Covid-19.
That is a concern because obesity rates in the Gulf have now reached record high levels.
At least a third of women and a quarter of men in the region are classed as excessively overweight.
In the UAE, 31 per cent of women are obese and 25 per cent of men, according to a regional review of data compiled by the World Obesity Federation.
Emerging research shows anyone who wants to shed weight should eat fewer carbohydrates, not saturated fat, Dr Shastri said.
“Carbs are the new villain,” he said.