Life Wellbeing Working from home and need to be switched on? Avoid greasy snacks
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Working from home and need to be switched on? Avoid greasy snacks

Burgers and fries are so comforting. But they can cause you to drop the ball at work. Photo: Getty
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Good times, right?

In the bad old days of leaving the house, there was no way you could bring a burger the size of a sheep’s head into the office and eat it at your desk, washing it down with a bucket of sugar-based sparkly.

Not day after day. People would talk and, of course, pilfer the plate of chips you were using as a counting machine.

Now, living in the workplace exile demanded by COVID-19, you can sip warm lard through a straw by the gallon while updating those spreadsheets and nobody is there to judge you apart from the cat.

Except your brain will judge you unfortunately … wandering away from the things you need to concentrate on. Science says so.

New research suggests that eating just one meal high in saturated fat can play havoc our ability to concentrate.

Take one turkey, and gravy you can swim in

The study, from Ohio State University, took a base line reading of the attention-holding of 51 female volunteers, using what is known as a Continuous Performance Test (CPT).

The women then ate a meal high in saturated fat or the same meal made with sunflower oil, which is high in unsaturated fat.

Either way, they ate a lot of fat.

According to a statement from the university, the experimental meal consisted of eggs, biscuits (think of rock-like scones), turkey sausage and gravy containing 60 grams of fat (either a palmitic acid-based oil high in saturated fat or the lower-saturated-fat sunflower oil).

Both meals totalled 930 calories and were designed to mimic the contents of various fast-food meals such as a Burger King double whopper with cheese or a McDonald’s Big Mac and medium fries.

Five hours later, the women took the continuous performance test again.

The high saturated-fat experience addled their concentration more than the unsaturated fat.

The loss of focus after a single meal was “eye opening” for the researchers.

“Most prior work looking at the causative effect of the diet has looked over a period of time. And this was just one meal – it’s pretty remarkable that we saw a difference,” said Annelise Madison, lead author of the study and a graduate student in clinical psychology at the Ohio State University.

Ms Madison also noted that the meal made with sunflower oil, while low in saturated fat, still contained a lot of dietary fat.

“Because both meals were high-fat and potentially problematic, the high-saturated-fat meal’s cognitive effect could be even greater if it were compared to a lower-fat meal,” she said.

Researchers were also looking at whether a condition called leaky gut, which allows intestinal bacteria to enter the bloodstream, had any effect on concentration.

Participants with leakier guts performed worse on the attention assessment no matter which meal they had eaten.

What’s the brain actually up to? Not yet sure

Ms Madison said previous research has suggested that food high in saturated fat can drive up inflammation throughout the body, and possibly the brain.

Fatty acids also can cross the blood-brain barrier.

“It could be that fatty acids are interacting with the brain directly. What it does show is the power of gut-related dysregulation,” she said.

There’s a double whammy here. Anxiety can prod people to seek comfort in fatty foods.

We live in very anxious times. And anxiety is in itself distracting and gets in the way of focusing on just the one important thing, and tends to drive your mind all over the shop.

“What we know is that when people are more anxious, a good subset of us will find high-saturated-fat food more enticing than broccoli,” Ms Madison said.

“We know from other research that depression and anxiety can interfere with concentration and attention as well.

“When we add that on top of the high-fat meal, we could expect the real-world effects to be even larger.”