When life gets stressful, many of us reach for comfort foods, often high in fat.
However, recent research sheds light on the negative consequences of consuming fatty foods during stressful periods, emphasizing the importance of healthier dietary choices.
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Birmingham, published in Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients, reveals the detrimental effects of eating high-fat foods before experiencing mental stress.
The study focused on the impact of such dietary choices on brain oxygenation and vascular function in adults.
Lead author Rosalind Baynham, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Birmingham, explained their approach. They provided a group of young, healthy adults with a breakfast of two butter croissants and then subjected them to a mentally stressful task.
This task involved eight-minute rapid mental math, with participants receiving immediate feedback on incorrect answers.
The goal was to simulate everyday stress at work or home.
During stress, various physiological changes occur in the body, including increased heart rate, elevated blood pressure, dilation of blood vessels, and heightened blood flow to the brain. These responses are typically part of the body’s reaction to stress.
However, the study discovered that consuming fatty foods during stress reduced vascular function by 1.74%, as measured by Brachial Flow-mediated dilatation (FMD).
Notably, a 1% reduction in vascular function is associated with a 13% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, the impairment in vascular function persisted even after participants had finished eating the croissants.
The researchers also found that consuming high-fat foods reduced cerebral oxygenation in the pre-frontal cortex.
This resulted in a 39% decrease in oxygenated hemoglobin delivery to the brain during stress compared to when participants consumed a low-fat meal.
Additionally, high-fat food consumption hurt mood, both during and after the stressful task.
Professor Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten, a specialist in Biological Psychology at the University of Birmingham, emphasized the significance of these findings.
Even in healthy young adults, the effects of stress recovery were significantly influenced by fatty food consumption. For individuals already at risk of cardiovascular disease, the implications could be even more serious.
The study suggests that choosing low-fat foods and beverages can mitigate the impact of stress on recovery.
While stress still had a negative effect on vascular function after a low-fat meal (resulting in a 1.18% decrease in FMD), this decline returned to normal levels 90 minutes after the stressful event.
Additional research by the University of Birmingham team has shown that consuming “healthier” foods, particularly those rich in polyphenols like cocoa, berries, grapes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables, can completely prevent this impairment in vascular function.
Dr. Catarina Rendeiro, an Assistant Professor in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Birmingham, highlighted the far-reaching consequences of food choices during stressful periods.
Reduced brain oxygenation can impact mood, mental health, and cognitive function, potentially affecting one’s ability to perform tasks they are stressed about, such as interviews or exams.
The study underscores the importance of being mindful of food choices during stressful episodes. While high-fat foods may be tempting, opting for low-fat alternatives can lead to more effective stress management. Baynham concluded by offering a practical tip for stressful situations:
“Next time you are in a big meeting or taking part in a job interview, maybe try and resist the free biscuits and go for some berries instead. You might feel more relaxed and can cope with the stress just a bit better.”
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The research findings can be found in Frontiers in Nutrition.
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