If it’s true that we are what we eat, then people who eat a lot of trans fatty acids — common in fast foods — might be a bit touchier than the rest of us.
In a new study of eating habits and behavior, Dr. Beatrice Golomb, a researcher and professor at the University of California, San Diego medical school, lays out evidence that a diet high in trans fats is linked to traits of irritability and aggression.
In her study, Golomb gave 945 Californians who had already enrolled in a drug clinical trial a standard dietary questionnaire that asked what they ate and how often they ate it. Then she administered a battery of questions and behavioral tests designed to measure aggressive behavior, impatience, and irritability.
Golomb speculates that trans fats — created by a chemical process that makes unsaturated oils solid at room temperature — appear to interfere with energy-producing mitochondria in brain cells. At the same time, trans fats promote inflammation and block the beneficial effects of DHA, one of the heart- and brain-healthy omega-3 fatty acids. (For these and other reasons, trans fats are increasingly regulated or even banned around the world).
Because of trans fats’ adverse effects on metabolism, Golomb does not find her results on behavior surprising. “People hear ‘brain’ and they hear ‘cognition,’” she says. “But the brain is also there to govern behavior. Factors that are linked to good brain health and good cognition are linked to good ability to regulate behavior as well.”
Her study found an association — not a cause, she cautions — between trans fat consumption and grouchiness. The study didn’t, for example, measure people’s blood or tissue for trans fat levels and so therefore it could be that people with irritable temperaments are more drawn toward foods containing trans fats. “If this does reflect a causal relationship, and we don’t really know that from observational data,” Golomb says, “the more important issue is, ‘Gee, we already see adverse health effects of trans fatty acids to the individual. They may have adverse effects on others around them.’”
“I tell my patients that they increase the shelf life of your food, and they decrease your shelf life,” Golomb says. “The purpose of food is to feed cells things that make them healthy. These things are what I call ‘anti-foods.’”
Golomb has previously made headlines for spotlighting mood and cognitive problems in people taking cholesterol-lowering statins and reporting that people who regularly consume chocolate do a better job of keeping the weight off.