Our ability to focus may falter after eating one meal high in saturated fat

Our ability to focus may falter after eating one meal high in saturated fat

 

New research, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has revealed that eating just one meal in high in saturated fat may reduce our ability to concentrate.

In the study, attention tests were performed on 51 women after they ate either a meal high in saturated fat or the same meal made with sunflower oil, which is high in unsaturated fat.

The results showed that the performance on the attention tests were worse after eating the meal high in saturated fat, which suggests there was a link between the food and the brain.

In addition to the saturated fat, the researchers were also looking at whether a condition called leaky gut effects concentration. Leaky gut is a condition which allows intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream. It was found that participants who had leakier guts performed worse on the tests, regardless of which meal they had eaten.

"Most prior work looking at the causative effect of the diet has looked over a period of time. And this was just one meal -- it's pretty remarkable that we saw a difference," said Annelise Madison, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology at The Ohio State University.

Madison also noted that although the meal made with sunflower oil was low in saturated fat, it still contained high amounts of dietary fat.

"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.

The participants completed an attention assessment during a morning visit to the lab in order to establish a baseline. The tool, a continuous performance test, measures sustained attention, concentration, and reaction time based on 10 minutes of computer-based activities.

The high-fat meal contained eggs, biscuits, turkey sausage and gravy containing 60 grams of fat, as well as either a palmitic acid-based oil high in saturated fat or sunflower oil, which contains less saturated fat. Each meal totalled 930 calories and were designed to mimic the contents of various fast food meals.

After five hours, the participants took the performance test a second time. Between one and four weeks later, the steps were repeated, eating the opposite meal the second time.

The participants’ fasting baseline blood samples were also analysed to determine whether they contained an inflammatory molecule which signals the presence of endotoxemia, which escapes from the intestine when the gut barrier is compromised.

After eating the meal high in saturated fat, the participants were, on average, 11% less able to detect target stimuli in the assessment. In women with signs of leaky gut, the response times were more erratic and they were less able to sustain their attention.

"If the women had high levels of endotoxemia, it also wiped out the between-meal differences. They were performing poorly no matter what type of fat they ate," Madison said.

Although the study did not determine what was happening in the brain, Madison said previous research has shown that saturated fat can increase inflammation in the body, and potentially the brain. Fatty acids are also capable of crossing 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," she said.

The analysis accounted for other potential influences on cognition, including depressive symptoms and the participants’ average dietary saturated fat consumption. The participants ate three standardised meals and fasted for 12 hours prior to each lab visit in order to reduce diet variations which could affect the results.

The findings suggest that concentration may also be more impaired in people who are stressed by the current pandemic and therefore turning to fatty foods for comfort.

"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."

Janice K Kiecolt-Glaser, Michael T Bailey, William B Malarkey, Megan E Renna, M Rosie Shrout, Rebecca Andridge, Martha A Belury, Annelise A Madison. 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

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