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Is an Ice Cream Binge Bad for the Heart?

Q. Is there a cardiovascular difference between eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting versus eating it over a period of time, such as a week?

A. Bingeing on ice cream has physiological effects that can potentially strain the cardiovascular system, “but let’s be honest, tons of people have eaten a pint of ice cream without consequences, including myself,” said Dr. Martha Gulati, chief of cardiology at the University of Arizona College of Medicine and editor of the American College of Cardiology’s patient education website Cardiosmart.org.

Still, while most people will “go on with their life” after an ice cream binge, she said, “we worry about people who are at high risk for heart disease or who already have heart disease — they should be careful about eating a calorie-heavy meal” or indulging excessively in high-fat, sugar-laden desserts.

One study from 2004 of 209 heart attack patients in Israel determined that people were more likely to sustain a serious coronary event in the several hours after eating an unusually heavy meal. That study, however, relied on patients’ recollections of what they had eaten on various days, memories that can be skewed or inaccurate after a serious health scare. A later study that analyzed data from the Israeli national survey of acute coronary syndromes found patients rarely identified a big meal as the trigger for their heart attacks, linking fewer than 2 percent of heart attacks to overeating.

Still, fat-laden and sugary foods have an immediate physiological effect that can potentially increase the risk of heart attacks or strokes, “especially if you have heart disease or underlying coronary disease that hasn’t pronounced itself,” Dr. Gulati said.

Such foods lead to a surge in insulin and triglycerides, raise systolic blood pressure and heart rate, and cause blood platelets to become sticky and to clump, which can cause blockages in the small vessels of the heart and reduce blood flow to the heart. Those conditions could “eventually cascade to a heart attack,” if blood flow to the heart doesn’t improve, Dr. Gulati said.

Another good reason not to make a habit of eating a pint of ice cream in a single sitting is that over time it will lead to weight gain, which increases cardiovascular risk, she said, adding, “We advise ice cream in moderation.”

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