What you eat can affect the body's response to stress. Researchers of a new study recommend avoiding fatty food for better recovery from the effects of stress.

A team of researchers from the University of Birmingham examined the impact of high-fat food on people undergoing stress and found that it could hinder the recovery of their endothelial function. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition.

The endothelium is made of a single layer of cells, called endothelial cells, that are responsible for keeping the blood flow smooth throughout the body. Damage to endothelial cells is associated with an increased risk of atherosclerosis and related heart diseases. Stress can induce endothelial dysfunction.

Studies have shown that nutrients such as fish oil, antioxidants, L-arginine, folic acid and soy protein can help in improving endothelial function.

The research team simulated everyday stress in a group of young healthy adults after they were given either a low-fat meal or a high-fat meal (two butter croissants) for breakfast. The participants were asked to do mental math for eight minutes. They were constantly alerted when their answers went wrong. The participants also could see themselves on a screen while doing the test.

"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," the researchers explained.

"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," they added.

Even after the stress test was over, the participants had reduced arterial elasticity for up to 90 minutes. The team discovered that when people eat high-fat foods during stressful situations, the oxygen supply to the front part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) gets affected. With high-fat food, there was a 39% reduction in the delivery of oxygenated blood compared to a low-fat alternative. Additionally, fatty foods negatively affected the mood of the participants, both during and after the stressful episode.

"Given the prevalence of fat consumption during stressful periods among young adults, these findings have important implications for dietary choices to protect the vasculature during periods of stress," the researchers added.

"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," said study author Jet Veldhuijzen van Zanten.