New research suggests that eating just one meal high in saturated fat can hinder our ability to concentrate.
Medically reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson and words by Annie Hayes
We know they’re not the most nutritious options, but when the going gets tough – in the grip of a global pandemic, for example – it’s all too easy to turn to comforting fatty foods for solace; be it a sausage, bacon and cheese bap, a tub of ice cream or a handful of biscuits.
However, new research has revealed those indulgent treats may be wreaking havoc on our attention span, and it doesn’t take much. Just one meal high in saturated fat can hinder our ability to concentrate, according to scientists from Ohio State University.
Saturated fat interferes with your ability to focus
The study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, recorded how 51 women performed on an attention test after eating a meal high in saturated fat compared with the same meal made with sunflower oil, which is high in unsaturated fat. Called a continuous performance test, it measures sustained attention, concentration and reaction time based on 10 minutes of computer-based activities.
The women completed a baseline assessment before eating a meal of eggs, biscuits, turkey sausage and gravy containing 60 grams of fat – either a palmitic acid-based oil high in saturated fat or the sunflower oil – designed to mimic the contents of fast food meals such as a Burger King double whopper with cheese or a McDonald’s Big Mac and medium fries.
After five hours, they took the test again. Weeks later they repeated these steps, eating the opposite meal of what they had eaten the first time around. After eating the meal high in saturated fat, the women were, on average, 11 per cent less able to detect target stimuli in the attention assessment, signalling a link between that type of fat and the brain.
Previous research has suggested that food high in saturated fat can drive up inflammation throughout the body and possibly the brain, said Annelise Madison, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology at The Ohio State University. ‘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.
All the more reason to give those sausage rolls a miss. Worse still, concentration levels could be even more impaired in people who are stressed by the pandemic and turning to fatty foods for comfort, said Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology and director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State.
‘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.’
What are saturated fats?
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, and are found mainly in animal and dairy products. In the UK, health guidelines recommend that men and women aged 19 to 64 should eat no more than 30g and 20g of saturated fat a day respectively.
Foods high in saturated fat include:
- Butter, ghee, suet, lard, and palm oil
- Cakes and biscuits
- Fatty cuts of beef, pork and lamb
- Sausages, bacon, and cured meats like salami and chorizo
- Dark chicken meat and poultry skin
- Cheese, cream, and sour cream
- Pastries, including pies, quiches, croissants and sausage rolls
- Ice cream, milkshakes, chocolate, and chocolate spread
- Coconut oil, coconut milk, and coconut cream
Unfortunately, these aren’t the only foods that may interfere with our ability to focus. ‘Meals, or foods filled with fast-digesting carbohydrates – such as biscuits, sweets, crisps, and chocolates – enter the bloodstream quickly, causing glucose spikes,’ says Wells. ‘This is great for a quick burst of energy, however what follows is an energy dip, increased feelings of lethargy, fogginess and subsequent reduced ability to focus.’
Foods to boost concentration
The omega-3 fatty acids found in salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit provide many brain benefits, including improving learning and memory, according to analysis from the University of California. ‘We have all heard the saying ‘fish is brain food’,’ says Wells, ‘it’s something science has found to be true time and time again because of its omega-3 content.’
Fill up on dark green leafy vegetables, avocado, and egg yolks, which contain lutein, a brain-supporting antioxidant. ‘Dark-coloured fruits like grapes, blueberries and blackberries are also filled with antioxidants and polyphenols, which both support and improve cognition,’ she adds.
When it comes to meal habits, eating breakfast improves short-term memory and attention, according to a review of studies published in the Italian Journal of Pediatrics. ‘Opting for slower digesting or resistant starches, like oatmeal porridge or toasted sourdough with peanut butter, can provide your brain with enough energy to stay alert for up to four hours,’ says Wells.
When it comes to carbs, distribute your intake evenly throughout the day, she says. ‘This will guarantee a constant release of energy during the course of the day.’ And to avoid any disruptive mid-afternoon pangs of hunger, keep portable snacks such as nuts or fresh fruit on hand to keep you satiated until your next meal.