It's no secret that what you put in your body has an impact on your mind. And even though it seems pretty intuitive that eating a ton of sugar could lead to a crash just a few hours later, or that eating a whole pizza might make you feel sluggish and foggy, you might be surprised to learn that there are actually foods that can cause stress in the long-term — if you eat them on the reg, that is. So if you've been feeling super overwhelmed lately and can't seem to find the root of your stress, it might be hidden in the foods you reach for when tensions run high.
A new study, which has been published in the journal Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, found that eating foods that are high in saturated fats may lead you to "develop poor stress coping skills" in the long run, according to ScienceDaily. The research demonstrated this point by assigning an experimental group of adolescent rats to a diet high in saturated fats, and after a few years of observing their behavior, the study found that these foods caused the rats to "have a harder time coping with stress as adults."
Specifically, researchers from Loma Linda University in California, where the study was done, found that the areas of the brain in charge of responding to fear and stress were so significantly altered by this high-fat diet that the rat subjects began to show signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. Pretty wild, right?
According to Dr. Johnny Figueroa, a lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at Loma Linda University School of Medicine, what you do during your teen years is critical for how you'll handle stress as an adult.
In a statement about the research, Figueroa said,
The findings of our research support that the lifestyle decisions made during adolescence — even those as simple as your diet — can make a big difference in our ability to overcome every day challenges.
In other words, if you spent a lot of your high school or even college years eating fast food and deep-fried everything (same), it might have put you at a bit of a disadvantage later in life when it comes to how you cope with stressful situations, and how you respond to fear and anxiety. The effect of what these researchers called a "Western-like high-saturated fat diet" on the development of the brain was a profound one for the rats involved in the study: Not only did they have more anxiety, but their ability to learn new things was significantly slowed down, as well as their response to being startled by something meant to induce fear — meaning they basically had a lot more trouble recognizing when danger was present, and as a result, couldn't really learn how to avoid situations that caused them anxiety, all because of the foods they ate as adolescents.
And, look, even though this study involved rats as subjects instead of humans, don't let that trick you into thinking the research doesn't apply to you. According to The San Diego Union-Tribune, many studies that focus on the brain involve rodents because "a lot of the structure and connectivity that exists in human brains also exists in rodents, especially rats."
Having said all of that, it's extremely important to note that not all saturated fats are bad for you.
Registered dietician Lisa Hayim, MS, founder of The Well Necessities, tells Elite Daily over email that your body needs fat to absorb certain vitamins and minerals, protect the exterior of your cells, and nourish your brain. In fact, she says, there are certain types of fats you can eat that actually help your body's response to stress, among a variety of other things.
According to Hayim, omega-6 saturated fats (examples of which include most fast foods, pastries, mayonnaise, certain vegetable oils, etc.) specifically play an important role in regulating your brain function. But, she tells Elite Daily, these fats are kind of overabundant in the American diet because people in the United States consume so much cheap, refined plant oil and processed food. "This is very different from consuming omega-6 sources that come from real food that hasn't been refined and stripped of its good stuff," the dietitian explains.
"Real food sources of omega-6 fats include Brazil nuts and walnuts, which bring in tremendous nutritional value," Hayim adds.
Unsaturated fats come mostly from plant sources, while the majority of saturated fats come from animal sources, Hayim tells Elite Daily. "Omega-3 and omega-6 are unsaturated fats that are essential, meaning that the body cannot make them on its own, and we must get these through food or supplement."
According to Hayim, omega-3s are especially beneficial for combatting inflammation in the body and protecting your brain from memory loss, depression, dementia, and yes, stress, too. "The best sources of omega-3s include oily fish like anchovies, salmon, sardines, halibut, tuna," the dietitian says. "Vegetarian sources include flax seed, chia seed, edamame, walnuts, beans, Brussels sprouts, kale, and spinach."
Of course, the biggest thing to keep in mind here is that any healthy, well-balanced diet should entail eating what you want, when you want, all in moderation. There's definitely room for the occasional bag of chips or bloody steak, but honestly, my stomach is rumbling just thinking about a plate of salmon with edamame on the side, so I think I can make do with this kind of balance, don't you?