Eating fatty foods during times of stress may impair the body’s ability to recover from the effects of stress, according to recently published research. The study, published in Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients, discovered that consuming high-fat foods before experiencing mental stress can lead to reduced brain oxygenation and poorer vascular function in adults.
The research was conducted by Rosalind Baynham, a Ph.D. researcher at the University of Birmingham, who explained the experiment’s design. A group of young, healthy adults were given two butter croissants for breakfast before being asked to engage in mentally challenging tasks, such as solving math problems under time pressure. The aim was to simulate the kind of stress individuals might encounter in their daily lives, whether at work or at home.
Stress triggers various physiological responses in the body. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, blood vessels dilate, and blood flow to the brain intensifies. Additionally, the elasticity of blood vessels, which is indicative of vascular function, decreases following mental stress. The study found that consuming fatty foods while under mental stress reduced vascular function by 1.74%, as measured by Brachial Flow-mediated dilatation (FMD).
Previous research has established that a 1% reduction in vascular function leads to a 13% increase in the risk of cardiovascular disease. Notably, the impairment in vascular function persisted even after the participants had finished eating the croissants, with reduced arterial elasticity still detectable up to 90 minutes after the stress-inducing event.
Furthermore, the researchers observed that consuming high-fat foods during stress led to reduced cerebral oxygenation in the pre-frontal cortex. Compared to when participants consumed a low-fat meal, the delivery of oxygen to this brain region decreased by 39% during stress. Fat consumption also adversely affected participants’ mood both during and after the stressful episode.
Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Birmingham, emphasized the significance of the findings. The study involved healthy individuals aged 18 to 30, making the substantial difference in their stress recovery when consuming fatty foods particularly noteworthy. Individuals who are already at a higher risk of cardiovascular disease may be even more adversely affected.
Given that stress is a common experience for people, especially those in high-stress occupations or with an elevated risk of cardiovascular disease, these findings should be taken seriously. This research provides insights that can guide individuals in making choices that reduce their risks rather than exacerbating them.
The study also revealed that consuming low-fat food and drinks can help mitigate the negative impact of stress on recovery. Although stress still had a detrimental effect on vascular function after consuming a low-fat meal, the decline returned to normal levels within 90 minutes of the stressful event.
Further research conducted by the University of Birmingham team indicates that consuming “healthier” foods, particularly those rich in polyphenols like cocoa, berries, grapes, apples, and other fruits and vegetables, can entirely prevent the impairment in vascular function associated with stress.
Dr. Catarina Rendeiro, Assistant Professor in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Birmingham, underscored the significance of food choices during stressful periods. Reduced oxygenation to the brain could potentially impact mood and mental health, exacerbating stress levels. Moreover, it may affect cognitive function and an individual’s ability to perform well in stressful situations, such as interviews, exams, or work meetings. This aspect warrants further research in the future.
The study’s findings highlight the influence of food choices on the cardiovascular system’s response to stress. Encouragingly, this means that individuals can take action to improve their response to stress. It is well-known that people tend to gravitate towards higher-fat foods when stressed, either due to convenience or as a form of indulgence. However, by doing so, they worsen their physical and psychological response to stress. Opting for low-fat foods can position individuals to better cope with stress.
In conclusion, stress is prevalent in today’s world, and regardless of external factors, we all need to develop strategies to manage it. Therefore, the next time you find yourself in a high-pressure meeting or job interview, consider resisting the temptation of fatty snacks and instead opt for healthier choices like berries. You may discover that you feel more relaxed and better equipped to handle the stress.
1. Source: Coherent Market Insights, Public sources, Desk research
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