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The Truth Behind Junk Food: Our Ability to Concentrate May Waver due to a Diet High in Saturated Fat

The current COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge the day-to-day normalcy of many individuals. Along with the adjustment of having to work and attend class within the comfort of our own homes, many of us turn to unhealthy comfort foods to cope with our new normal. However, a new research study from Ohio State University found that a diet high in saturated fat can ultimately impair concentration; this presents an outcome that may not be so positive for our at-home junk food binges.

In this study, researchers recruited 51 women and tested their attention, concentration, and reaction time through a continuous performance test before they ate either a meal high in saturated fat or a similar meal composed of sunflower oil, which contained less saturated fat. Both diets contained the same amount of calories and type of food which included eggs, biscuits, and turkey sausage. After 5 hours, the women underwent the continuous performance test again. It was found that after eating only one meal high in saturated fat, the women of this group were 11% less able to identify target stimuli in the attention assessment.

Furthermore, researchers looked into whether a condition called “leaky gut”, in which intestinal bacteria enter the bloodstream, had any relationship with concentration. They noted women with higher baseline levels of lipopolysaccharide-binding protein (LBP), an inflammatory molecule that accumulates when a toxin moves into the bloodstream due to the gut barrier being compromised, signals endotoxemia. It was found that no matter which meal they had eaten, the participants that had leaky gut performed lower on the attention assessments than those without the condition. To be specific, participants with leaky gut had erratic response times and were less able to maintain their attention for 10 minutes.

Although the study did not determine the specific brain activity that was occurring during the consumption of saturated fat, the researchers speculate that high levels of saturated fat can increase inflammation throughout the body and brain. Fatty acids can also cross the blood-brain barrier, indicating the presence of “gut-related dysregulation” on the brain.

Researchers also considered the idea that anxiety and depressive symptoms resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic can also exacerbate poor cognition. Thus, the synergistic effect of a diet high in saturated fat and the mental stress that many of us are experiencing may further negatively impact our ability to concentrate during this current pandemic.

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