How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating

The body did not differentiate between 'good' and 'bad' fats the day after a stressful situation


Women do not benefit from eating healthier types of certain foods if they have high levels of stress the day before, a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry suggests.

“Eating a breakfast with ‘bad fat’ was just the same as eating one with ‘good fat,’” Dr. Martha Belury, a professor of human nutrition and a co-author of the report, says.

This is the first research to show that stress can nullify the benefits of eating meals prepared with healthier, monounsaturated fats – like those found in sunflower, olive or peanut oils.

Researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center fed two different meals to 58 women; one meal was high in saturated fats, the other was prepared with healthier high oleic sunflower oil.

“We originally designed the study to compare how women with or without prior history of breast cancer respond to stress for metabolism, inflammation,” Dr. Belury says. “It turned out that having a history of cancer did not mediate the relationship between stress with inflammation and metabolism.”

Another comparable study, the results of which were similar, observed 48 couples, both men and women, Belury says. “We don’t think the result would be different for men but, of course, we have to study this possibility,” Dr. Belury says. Both sexes tend to respond to stress in similar ways, biologically speaking, she adds. “Stress triggers for men may be different, but their responses are the same,” she adds.

Inflammation levels increased after eating the saturated fat meal, and lowered after eating the sunflower oil meal. However, if the women had a stressful situation the day before, their inflammatory response was higher regardless of which meal they ate. Stress was interacting with the body, which didn’t recognize the difference between “good” and “bad” fat.

This is a pilot study, Dr. Belury says, and a lot more needs to be examined. “We only tested on change of diets,” she adds. “We do not know how other lifestyle [factors] could impact how we respond to stress.”

Also, if women experienced a tense situation the day before and the type of meal they had the next day didn’t matter, then how much time should  pass before what they eat did matter? “We don’t know but should study that next,” Dr. Belury says. But, this is not an excuse to consume unhealthy foods.

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More readings: 

15 Signs You May Be Suffering from Stress But Don’t Realize It

Quick Tips for Handling Stress at Work

The Connection: What to Know About Suicide and Eating Disorders


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