Liquid Gold: The Lifesaving Power of Plant Oils in Your Bloodstream

Sunburst Olive Rapeseed Sunflower Oil

Recent research has shown that diets high in plant-based unsaturated fats can significantly alter blood fat profiles, which correlates with a lower risk of developing diseases such as cardiovascular disease and diabetes. This finding is based on detailed lipid analysis and the integration of data from controlled diet interventions and observational studies.

A study has confirmed that a diet rich in unsaturated plant fats improves blood lipid profiles and reduces the risk of cardiometabolic diseases, utilizing advanced lipidomics and a combination of dietary studies.

Switching from a diet high in saturated animal fats to one rich in plant-based unsaturated fats affects the fat composition in the blood, which in turn influences long-term disease risk. A recent study published today in Nature Medicine, conducted by a team of researchers from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, the German Institute of Human Nutrition, Germany, and several other universities, shows that it is possible to accurately measure diet-related fat changes in the blood and directly link them to the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

Study Highlights Benefits of Unsaturated Plant Fats

“Our study confirms with even more certainty the health benefits of a diet high in unsaturated plant fats such as the Mediterranean diet and could help provide targeted dietary advice to those who would benefit most from changing their eating habits,” says Clemens Wittenbecher, research leader at Chalmers University of Technology and the study’s senior author.

The World Health Organization (WHO) highlights the importance of healthy diets in preventing chronic diseases, recommending the replacement of saturated fats with plant-based unsaturated fats to reduce cardiometabolic risk. However, the certainty of these guidelines is moderate due to limitations in existing studies.

Plant Oils and Butter

Blood fat profiles confirm the health benefits of replacing butter with high-quality plant oils. Credit: Chalmers University of Technology, Emma Fry

This new study addresses these limitations by closely analyzing fats in the blood, also known as lipids, with a method called lipidomics. These very detailed lipid measurements enabled the researchers to link diet and disease in an innovative combination of different study types. This novel approach combines dietary intervention studies (that use highly controlled diets), with previously carried out cohort studies with long-term health tracking.

Insights From Dietary Intervention and Cohort Studies

Part of this research was conducted in a dietary intervention study at the University of Reading, U.K., which involved 113 participants. For 16 weeks, one group consumed a diet high in saturated animal fats, while the other group followed a diet rich in unsaturated plant-based fats. Blood samples were analyzed using lipidomics to identify specific lipid molecules reflecting the different diets each participant consumed.

“We summarized the effects on blood lipids with a multi-lipid score (MLS). A high MLS indicates a healthy blood fat profile, and a high intake of unsaturated plant fat and low intake of saturated animal fat can help in achieving such positive MLS levels,” says Fabian Eichelmann from the German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke and first author of the study.

Clemens Wittenbecher

Clemens Wittenbecher, Assistant Professor, Department of Life Sciences, Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. Credit: Chalmers University of Technology | Martina Butorac

These MLS results from the dietary intervention study were then statistically related to the occurrence of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes in large observational studies that had previously been carried out. These large cohort studies followed initially healthy participants for several years. This analysis of data from both sets of studies showed that participants with a higher MLS, which indicates a beneficial dietary fat composition, had a substantially reduced risk of developing cardiometabolic diseases.

Link Between Diet, Lipidomics, and Health Outcomes

Additionally, the study examined whether individuals with low MLS levels, indicating high saturated fat content of the diet, specifically benefited from a healthier diet. The Mediterranean diet focuses on providing more unsaturated plant fats and was used in one of the large intervention trials, known as the PREDIMED trial. Using this study, the researchers found that diabetes prevention was indeed most pronounced in individuals with low MLS levels at the start of the study.

“Diet is so complex that it is often difficult to draw conclusive evidence from a single study. Our approach of using lipidomics to combine intervention studies with highly controlled diets and prospective cohort studies with long-term health tracking can overcome current limitations in nutrition research,” explains Clemens Wittenbecher.

About the previous large cohort and intervention studies:

  1. German EPIC-Potsdam study – Nordic diet, Mediterranean diet, and the risk of chronic diseases: the EPIC-Potsdam study
  2. Harvard’s Nurses’ Health Studies – The Nurses’ Health Study and Nurses’ Health Study II are among the largest investigations into the risk factors for major chronic diseases in women
  3. PREDIMED trial – Primary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease with a Mediterranean Diet Supplemented with Extra-Virgin Olive Oil or Nuts

Reference: “Lipidome changes due to improved dietary fat quality inform cardiometabolic risk reduction and precision nutrition” by Fabian Eichelmann, Marcela Prada, Laury Sellem, Kim G. Jackson, Jordi Salas Salvadó, Cristina Razquin Burillo, Ramon Estruch, Michael Friedén, Frederik Rosqvist, Ulf Risérus, Kathryn M. Rexrode, Marta Guasch-Ferré, Qi Sun, Walter C. Willett, Miguel Angel Martinez-Gonzalez, Julie A. Lovegrove, Frank B. Hu, Matthias B. Schulze and Clemens Wittenbecher, 11 July 2024, Nature Medicine.
DOI: 10.1038/s41591-024-03124-1

The researchers involved in the study are Fabian Eichelmann, Marcela Prada, Laury Sellem, Kim G Jackson, Jordi Salas Salvadó, Cristina Razquin Burillo, Ramon Estruch, Michael Friedén, Frederik Rosqvist, Ulf Risérus, Kathryn M Rexrode, Marta Guasch-Ferré, Qi Sun, Walter C Willett, Miguel Angel Martinez-Gonzalez, Julie A Lovegrove, Frank B Hu, Matthias B Schulze, Clemens Wittenbecher

At the time of the study, the researchers were active at:

  • German Institute of Human Nutrition Potsdam-Rehbruecke, Nuthetal, Germany
  • German Center for Diabetes Research (DZD), Neuherberg, Germany
  • Institute for Cardiovascular and Metabolic Research and Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health, Reading, UK
  • Human Nutrition Unit, Department of Biochemistry and Biotechnology, Institut d’Investigació Sanitària Pere Virgili, Universitat Rovira i Virgili, Reus, Spain
  • Consorcio CIBER, M.P. Fisiopatología de la Obesidad y Nutrición (CIBERObn), Instituto de Salud Carlos III (ISCIII). Madrid, Spain
  • IdiSNA (Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria de Navarra), University of Navarra, Pamplona, Spain
  • Institut d’Investigacions Biomèdiques August Pi Sunyer (IDIBAPS), Hospital Clinic, University of Barcelona, Barcelona, Spain
  • Uppsala university, Uppsala, Sweden
  • Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston MA, USA
  • University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen, Denmark.
  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Boston MA, USA
  • Institute of Nutritional Science, University of Potsdam, Nuthetal, Germany
  • Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden

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