During the quarantine, many people relied on comfort food to help deal with the stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus. However, what if we told you the foods that help console you also cause you to lose your ability to stay present?
A new study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition by researchers at The Ohio State University, suggests that eating just one meal high in saturated fat is enough to hinder one’s concentration levels. In other words, those who have had the privilege of working from home during the pandemic and have also regularly indulged in comfort food may have noticed a slight shift in their ability to stay focused.
The study involved 51 women, each of which were instructed to take a test that examined their attention in the morning and then again, five hours after consuming either a meal high in saturated fat or a meal that consisted of a healthier, unsaturated fat (in this case, sunflower oil). The group that ate the meal high in saturated fat performed worse on the attention test than the group who ate the meal cooked with unsaturated fat.
It’s important to clarify that the meal that was cooked with an unsaturated fat was still high in overall dietary fat—with each meal clocking in at 930 calories and containing 60 grams of total fat. Still, the group who ate the meal that was cooked in palm oil (saturated fat) was “11 percent less able to detect target stimuli in the attention assessment.”
For the women who had more severe cases of leaky gut—a syndrome that allows intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream—it didn’t matter which type of fat they ate. The women with leakier guts experienced erratic response times, which inhibited their ability to stay attentive during the 10-minute-long test.
Stephanie Urrutia registered dietitian at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center and the senior culinary educator for The James Instructional Kitchen says that eating foods high in sugar and saturated fats, while also low in fiber, often wreak havoc on the gut by causing inflammation. When the gut becomes inflamed, the tight junctions of the digestive tract begin to loosen, leaving holes in the intestine.
“These gaps can allow partially digested food, toxins, and bugs to get through the junctions and outside of the digestive tract which can create a variety of issues,” she says.
The particular toxin that hindered the participants’ ability to concentrate is referred to as endotoxemia. And though the study didn’t identify what exactly was occurring in the brain, the results did reveal a potential connection between saturated fat and the gut-brain axis. The study suggests that saturated fat can cause the gut to become inflamed which can then cause inflammation within the brain. The idea of which isn’t far-fetched, seeing as fatty acids can cross the blood-brain barrier.
So the next time you heat a meal that’s bogged down in fat, especially saturated fat, notice whether or not you find it more difficult to concentrate. The findings in this study would argue that it does.