NUTRITION
May 27, 2020

Try to Find Comfort Somewhere Else

So-called comfort foods that are high in saturated fat make it harder to pay attention. Something to consider before you indulge.

Who couldn't use a little comfort these days? Many of us may find ourselves turning to comfort foods like cookies or ice cream, potato chips or French fries as we struggle with the day-to-day realities of living in a pandemic. Eating foods high in saturated fat has a downside you may not know about: it can blunt our concentration, a study finds, and that’s not good news if you are one of many who are working from home or trying to homeschool children.

Researchers at Ohio State University looked at the performance of 51 women on a test of their attention after eating a meal high in saturated fat compared to the same meal made with an unsaturated fat.

Foods high in saturated fat can increase inflammation in the body and the brain. High-fat foods, regardless of how comforting they are, may compound the stress you feel.

During a morning visit to the lab, a baseline assessment of the participants' attention was made, using a computer-based test known as the continuous performance test. Activities in the test measured their sustained attention, concentration, and reaction time.

Next, participants ate a high fat meal that included eggs, biscuits, turkey sausage and gravy. The meal contained 60 grams of fat and 930 calories and was designed to imitate a fast-food meal such as a McDonald’s Big Mac and a medium order of fries. Some women’s meals were prepared with saturated fat while others contained sunflower oil, an unsaturated fat.

The women took the continuous performance test and had their reaction time, attention and concentration measured again, five hours later. Between one to four weeks after this, participants came back to the lab and ate the opposite meal of what they had eaten at the previous visit. If they had eaten the meal with unsaturated fat the first time, they were given the meal made with saturated fat, and vice versa.

Scores on the continuous performance test were worse after eating the meal high in saturated fat compared to the meal containing sunflower oil, suggesting a connection between fatty food and the brain.

The researchers were also studying whether a condition known as leaky gut had an effect on concentration. Leaky gut allows bacteria from the intestinal tract to cross into the bloodstream.

Fasting baseline blood samples of the study participants were analyzed to see if they contained an inflammatory molecule that indicates the presence of a toxin that escapes from the intestinal tract when the gut barrier becomes compromised.

Women with the toxin present in their blood performed poorly on the concentration test regardless of the type of fat they ate.

According to Annelise Madison, lead author of the study, research has suggested that foods high in saturated fat can increase inflammation in the body and the brain. Fatty acids are able to cross the blood-brain barrier, and could be interacting directly with the brain. Both meals in the study were high in fat, so if the effects of a high-fat meal had been compared to a low-fat meal, the effect on concentration could have been even greater, said Madison.

Many of us are stressed, depressed and anxious during this time, and these feelings can interfere with our concentration. High-fat foods, regardless of how comforting they are, may make things worse.

Try to deal with stress in ways other than eating. A YouTube workout, a long walk, meditation or doing something creative may help. Leave the comfort foods out of your cart, whether real or virtual.

The study is published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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