Losing focus? Your lunch may be to blame
Many of us are working from home right now, and the constant temptation of the fridge being just a few steps away – or a tasty meal that can be delivered to your door in a flash – has meant that many of us are consuming more fatty foods than we might usually eat.
While we know that fatty food can do a number on that number on the scale, new research has suggested that a diet high in fatty foods could also be having an impact on your ability to concentrate – something that’s already hard enough when you’re working at home without your colleagues around to motivate you. In fact, it appears that even one meal high in saturated fat can hinder your ability to focus.
The study, by researchers at Ohio State University, US, compared how 51 women performed on a test of their attention 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? The women’s performance on the test was worse after eating the high-saturated-fat meal than after they ate the meal containing a healthier fat, which researchers say signals a link between that fatty food and the brain.
The loss of focus after a single meal was eye-opening for the researchers.
“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,” says Annelise Madison, lead author of the study.
Madison also notes that the meal made with sunflower oil, while low in saturated fat, still contained a lot of dietary fat: “Because both meals were high-fat and potentially problematic, the high-saturated-fat meal’s cognitive effect may be even greater if it were compared to a lower-fat meal,” she says.
Though the study didn’t determine what was going on in the brain, Madison says previous research has found that food high in saturated fat can drive up inflammation throughout the body, and possibly the brain. Fatty acids also can cross the blood-brain barrier.
“It could be that fatty acids are interacting with the brain directly,” she says. “What it does show is the power of gut-related dysregulation.”
The findings suggest concentration could be even more impaired in people stressed by the COVID-19 pandemic who are 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,” says Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State. “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.”