Using fatty foods to comfort eat during times of stress can impair the body’s recovery from the pressure, research suggests.
Many people turn to unhealthy foods such as chocolate or crisps when they are feeling the strain, but researchers have found that this can reduce blood flow to the brain and cause poorer vascular function – which in turn can have a negative effect on mental health and cognitive function, and increase the risk of heart disease.
The researchers suggest people resist the lure of convenient treats by nibbling on fruits and vegetables instead.
Prof Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten said: “We looked at healthy 18 to 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.”
The study involved a group of healthy young adults who were given two butter croissants for breakfast. The participants were then asked to do mental maths, increasing in speed for eight minutes, and were alerted when they got an answer wrong. They could also see themselves on a screen.
The researchers found that consuming fatty foods when mentally stressed reduced vascular function by 1.74%. Previous studies have shown that a 1% reduction in vascular function leads to a 13% increase in cardiovascular disease risk.
“The experiment was designed to simulate everyday stress that we might have to deal with at work or at home. 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,” said the study’s first author, Rosalind Baynham of the University of Birmingham.
The research, published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition and Nutrients, also showed that consuming healthier foods, particularly those rich in polyphenols, such as cocoa, berries, grapes, apples and other fruits and vegetables, can prevent the impairment in vascular function.