Comfort foods may be catching your attention during the COVID-19 pandemic – literally. New research indicates that eating just one meal high in saturated fat can inhibit our ability to concentrate. Working from home may need a new meal plan. 

By Sofia Popov The coronavirus outbreak has shifted where and how we work, amplified anxiety and worry, and made it harder to concentrate. Temptation to find a friend in fatty foods is at a recent high. It might be time to put the cookie down. New research by Ohio State University suggests it takes only a single meal high in saturated fat to impair our attention.  Given the majority of us are working, eating – and doing everything – from home, these findings may be of practical use, as a way to enhance productivity and work satisfaction.  

Linking Fatty Food & Your Brain

Overall, the study:
  • Compared how 51 women performed on an attention test after eating:
    • A meal high in saturated fat. 
    • Or the same meal made with sunflower oil (high in unsaturated fat.)
  • Their blood was drawn 1 and 5 hours post-meal.
  • Various markers linked to inflammation were checked.
  • They completed a continuous performance test, which measures sustained attention, concentration and reaction time. 
  • Between 1 to 4 weeks later, they repeated the same protocol, by switched which meal they ate. 
  • Results showed that their performance was worse after eating the high-saturated-fat meal, signalling a link between that fatty food and the brain.

Mimicking McDonald's 

Saturated fat is often found in animal products like meat, butter and dairy, as well as certain oils such as coconut or palm oil.  In this case, the high-fat meal was a typical fry-up (eggs, sausages and gravy) that totalled 60 grams of fat and 930 calories. To differentiate, it was either prepared with palm oil (high in saturated fat) or sunflower oil (lower saturated fat.) Both meals were designed to mimic typical fast-food meals, e.g. Burger King's double whopper or McDonald's Big Mac and fries.  Still, it's worth noting that the alternative meal, while low in saturated fat, was also full of dietary fat. Thus, the cognitive effects of the high-saturated meal could be even greater if it was compared to a genuinely lower fat meal. In other words, go for whole food sources of fat, such as raw nuts and avocados. 

Leaky Gut Zaps Attention Spans

Researchers also looked at into whether there was a link between concentration and a condition called leaky gut, whereby intestinal bacteria enter bloodstream. Turns out, participants who had leakier guts had poor performances on the attention assessment – no matter which meal they had eaten. Looking at whether their fasting baseline blood samples, the researchers checked for an inflammatory that sign the presence of endotoxemia - a toxin that escapes from the intestines and enters the bloodstream if the gut barrier is compromised. The gastrointestinal tract is the main source of endotoxin, thus, these results complement previous findings that leaky gut is linked to attention deficits.  Namely, the team found that, after eating a lot of saturated fat, all of participants were, on average, 11% less able to detect target stimuli in the attention assessment. This still rang true after the researchers took into account other factors that can influence cognition, such as depression.

Women with leaky gut had greater concentration lapses, more erratic response times and were less able to sustain their attention during the 10-minute test.

Meanwhile, they also that women with leaky gut had greater concentration lapses, more erratic response times and were less able to sustain their attention during the 10-minute test. Meanwhile, if high levels of endotoxemia were present, they performed poorly no what matter what fat they were eating. 

Give Your Brain Something to Smile About

These results were eye-opening. Previously, work investigating the effects of diet have been conducted over a period of time. Here, there was a pretty remarkable difference after ONE meal!  Other findings have already demonstrated that food in high in saturated fat can ignite inflammation throughout the body – potentially even the brain. Fatty acids can also cross the blood-brain barrier.

It could be that fatty acids are interacting with the brain directly. What it does show is the power of gut-related dysregulation." 

"It could be that fatty acids are interacting with the brain directly. What it does show is the power of gut-related dysregulation," says Annelise Madison, lead author of the study.  Ultimately, these findings imply that concentration could be even more hard hit if we turn to comfort foods during the pandemic. Those fries may seem more enticing than broccoli, but, what is actually going to give your brain something to smile about?

Reference:

  1. Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., et al. Afternoon distraction: a high-saturated-fat meal and endotoxemia impact postmeal attention in a randomized crossover trialThe American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2020; DOI: 10.1093/ajcn/nqaa085