Saturated fat is delicious but not ideal if you’ve got to crack on with work afterwards (Credits: Getty Images)
It’s hardly surprising; staying in the same location week after week, with little opportunity to take fresh air or be exposed to different stimuli might see your capacity to concentrate diminish. But it may not be down to your isolation station alone.
New research has found that our focus may start to suffer after eating just one meal high in saturated fat.
Fatty food is exactly the sort of comfort blanket many of us are enjoying during this pandemic but a recent study from Ohio State University has found that performance is significantly hindered by less healthy fats.
51 women took a test to assess their attention, having first either eaten the same meal – with one crucial difference. One meal was high in saturated fat and the other was made with sunflower oil. Their performance was worse after eating the high-saturated fat meal than the healthier fat, leading researchers to suggest a link between fatty food and the brain.
The scientists were also looking at whether a condition called leaky gut (which allows intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream) affects concentration – and they found that it did. Those who had leaky guts performed worst on the test, regardless of which meal they ate.
Lead author of the study, Annelise Madison, said that while most previous studies looked at the effect of diet over a prolonged period of time, this finding was interesting because it showed a ‘pretty remarkable’ difference after just one meal.
Both meals were high in dietary fat, it’s just that they contained different types of it.
Not all fats are the same
Fat isn’t bad for you. In fact, it’s essential that we all eat enough fat as certain vitamins are only absorbed by the body if we’re also consuming fat.
In recent years, high fat diets have been touted as the holy grail of weight loss. They ‘work’ by forcing the body into a state of ketosis (where it runs off its own energy supply) and starving it of sugar (in the form of carbs). Keto enthusiasts would argue that they mainly fill up on unsaturated fat from things like avocados, lean meats, nuts, seeds and oily fish – whereas the Atkins Diet was all about eating as much saturated fat (red meat, cheese, cream) as possible.
The Food Standards Agency, which is reponsible for all of the Government’s nutritonal guidance, issued a statement back in 2003 describing low-carb diets like the Atkins as ‘deadly’. It claimed that they were linked to heart disease, cancer and – ironically – obesity.
We do all need a little bit of saturated fat in our diets and saturated isn’t as bad as trans fats. Saturated fats include those which naturally occur in whole-fat milk, red meat, cheese and coconut oil. Trans fats are artificial and come from highly processed foods. You want to keep those to an absolute minimum (however delicious) and then consume saturated fats in moderation.
Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are the ones to really fill up on. They can lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, as well as helping to improve skin, teeth, hair, bone density and more.
Think of fats as a traffic light system:
Unsaturated = green
Saturated = amber
Trans = red
You can enjoy all three as part of a balanced diet but it is a fact that in an ideal world, you’d be eating way more unsaturated than trans fats.
‘Because both meals were high-fat and potentially problematic, the high-saturated-fat meal’s cognitive effect could be even greater if it were compared to a lower-fat meal,’ she said.
A second study (published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition) was then carried on a group of cancer survivors.
Again, women were fed a high fat meal to test for fatigue and inflammation. At the beginning, they were asked to complete a baseline assessment of their attention before eating a high-fat meal containing eggs, biscuits, turkey sausage and gravy – either cooked in oil high in saturated fat or sunflower oil. Both meals came to 930 calories and were designed to mimic fast food meals like Burger King’s double whopper with cheese or a Big Mac and medium fries.
Five hours later, the women took the same computer-based test again and in the following few weeks, did the same process with the opposite meal.
They also had fasted blood samples taken and analysed for an inflammatory molecule that signals the presence of endotoxemia – a toxin responsible for leaky gut.
After eating the high saturated fat meal, women performed on average 11 per cent worse on the test, and again, those with signs of leaky gut came bottom. They performed poorly regardless of what type of fat they ate.
So perhaps that proves the ‘power of gut-related dysregulation’, Madison said – pointing to previous research that suggested saturated fat increased inflammation throught the body, including possibly the brain.
And, Professor Janice Keicold-Glaser from Ohio State said, this might suggest why concentration is decreasing during lockdown in stressed out people turning to fatty foods.
‘What we know is that when people are more anxious, a good subset of us will find high-saturated-fat food more enticing than broccoli,’ she said.
‘We know from other research that depression and anxiety can interfere with concentration and attention as well. When we add that on top of the high-fat meal, we could expect the real-world effects to be even larger.’
TL;DR, we all need a little comfort food now and again – particularly in times of stress. But if you are craving pizza or a takeaway, save it for when you don’t have anything important to concentrate on afterwards and try to limit the frequency. If having a Dominoes is your Friday night treat at the moment, enjoy it – just make sure you’re enjoying lots of other lower-saturated fat meals during the week too.