Fatty foods may be the worst thing to eat when dealing with stress

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — Many people turn to indulgent foods during stressful times as a source of comfort, but new findings out of the United Kingdom say that could be the worst choice you can make. Scientists at the University of Birmingham have found that consuming fatty foods during stressful periods can impair the body’s recovery from the effects of stress.

More specifically, the project found that eating foods high in fat prior to a mentally stressful episode appeared to reduce brain oxygenation and induce poorer vascular function in adults.

“We took a group of young healthy adults and gave them two butter croissants as breakfast. We then asked them to do mental maths, increasing in speed for eight minutes, alerting them when they got an answer wrong. They could also see themselves on a screen whilst they did the exercise. The experiment was designed to simulate everyday stress that we might have to deal with at work or at home,” says first study author Rosalind Baynham, a PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham, in a media release.

When we get stressed, different things happen in the body, our heart rate and blood pressure go up, our blood vessels dilate and blood flow to the brain increases. We also know that the elasticity of our blood vessels – which is a measure of vascular function – declines following mental stress. We found that consuming fatty foods when mentally stressed reduced vascular function by 1.74% (as measured by Brachial Flow-mediated dilatation, FMD). Previous studies have shown that a 1% reduction in vascular function leads to a 13% increase in cardiovascular disease risk. Importantly we show that this impairment in vascular function persisted for even longer when our participants had eaten the croissants.”

bread croissants
(Credit: JÉSHOOTS via Pexels)

Study authors detected reduced arterial elasticity in participants up to an hour and a half after the stressful event had ended. They also noted eating fatty foods attenuated cerebral oxygenation in the pre-frontal cortex, with lower oxygen delivery (39% reduction in oxygenated hemoglobin) observed during stress in comparison to when participants consumed a low-fat meal. Moreover, eating fat also had a negative impact on mood – both during and after the stressful episode.

“We looked at healthy 18–30-year-olds for this study, and to see such a significant difference in how their bodies recover from stress when they eat fatty foods is staggering. For people who already have an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, the impacts could be even more serious. We all deal with stress all the time, but especially for those of us in high-stress jobs and at risk of cardiovascular disease, these findings should be taken seriously. This research can help us make decisions that reduce risks rather than make them worse,” explains Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten, Professor of Biological Psychology at the University of Birmingham.

These research efforts also indicate eating low-fat food and drinks has a much smaller impact on peoples’ recovery from stress. After eating a low-fat meal, stress still showed a negative effect on vascular function (1.18% decrease in FMD). However, this decline returned to normal 90 minutes after the stressful event.

Further research conducted by the team at the University of Birmingham has shown that the consumption of ‘healthier’ foods, especially foods rich in polyphenols, like cocoa, berries, grapes, apples and other fruits and vegetables, can totally prevent this impairment in vascular function.

Dietary flavanol sources include cocoa, tea, grapes, and berries. (CREDIT: MARS)

“The impact of these foods during stressful periods cannot be understated. For example, reduced oxygenation to the brain could potentially impact mood and mental health, making people even more stressed. On the other hand, it could affect cognitive function and people’s ability to perform the very task they are stressing about, such as an interview, an exam or work meeting. This is something we would like to do more research into in the future,” comments Dr. Catarina Rendeiro, Assistant Professor in Nutritional Sciences at the University of Birmingham.

“Our studies show that food choices around stressful episodes can exacerbate or protect from the effects of stress on our cardiovascular system. The good news is that this means we can do something about this. We know that when people are stressed, they tend to gravitate towards higher-fat foods, either because it is the more convenient option if time is in short supply, or as a treat to deal with the stress. But by doing this, they are making their physical and psychological response to stress worse. By picking low-fat foods, they could be positioning themselves to cope with the stress more effectively.”

“The world is an incredibly stressful place right now, and even without outside factors such as war or a cost-of-living crisis, stress is something we all need to deal with. So, 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 find you feel more relaxed and can cope with the stress just a little bit better,” Baynham concludes.

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

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