How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating from How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating

How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating

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How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating

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. 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.

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What kind of stressful situations?

The women were asked about stress on the previous day. The answers were recorded and sent to a third party for evaluation, Dr. Belury says. They used the Daily Inventory of Stressful Events questionnaire to determine if the woman was under stress. “We did not count minor irritants – something that will pass soon as stressful,” she says. Two examples of stressful situations for women in the study were a traffic ticket and a child drawing on a wall with permanent marker.

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The meals

The only difference was the type of fat. “On one visit, a woman ate high saturated fat meal; on other visit, she ate high oleic acid-oil meal,” Dr. Belury says. Neither the women nor the doctors knew which meal the participants were eating. “Both meals were identical in other ways – refined carbs, total fat level, and total calories.” Each breakfast contained 930 calories and 60 grams of fat.

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Stress, cortisol, insulin, glucose

“Cortisol is like surveillance,” Dr. Belury says. It is released when the body is under stress, the liver produces more glucose, a blood sugar that would give you the energy for “fight or flight” in an emergency. If cortisol stays high, insulin levels stay high. “For some reason cortisol blunts the activity of insulin,” she adds. The muscle tissue doesn’t suck up the extra glucose, leading to it being stored in fat cells.

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Chemical reaction in the body

Higher cortisol levels, higher insulin, elevated postprandial triglycerides were all worsened by stress,” Dr. Belury says. This was also confirmed in a previous study that examined couples. “The patterns were very similar,” she adds.

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Triglycerides and stress

Triglycerides are a type of fat in your blood. Having a high level may raise the risk of heart disease, especially in women. Another similar study, Dr. Belury says, shows that triglycerides levels remained high after stress in both men and women.

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Weight gain

Stress is often blamed for weight gain. This study only confirms this. The longer you are under stress, the longer healthier foods won’t have an effect. “A long term ramification could be contributions of stress to weight gain and chronic diseases associated with stress and/or weight gain,” Dr. Belury says.

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Blood changes

The researchers say that stress was actually interacting with the meal the women were eating. The team checked CRP –marker of inflammation, and CAM and ICAM – proteins that promote vascular changes. They could predict a greater likelihood of plaque forming in the arteries. All four unhealthy markers were higher following the saturated fat meal, than the sunflower oil meal. Blood levels before the meals, age difference, abdominal fat and physical activity – all factors that could skew results – were controlled.

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Controlling stress

Controlling stress appears to be as crucial to a diet as controlling different types of fat. It’s believed that reduced inflammation could be the cornerstone of the benefits of eating healthier foods such as the Mediterranean diet – one that is high in oleic acid, usually from olive oil, Belury said. Watch out for signs you may be under stress but don’t realize it – forgetfulness, stomach aches, gum problems, lack of sleep, and even back pain.

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Should you eat when stressed then?

If it makes no difference to the body, then aren’t women better off not eating when stressed and after that? “That might be one idea but [we are] not sure about how likely people will be willing to give up a meal – especially when stressed,” Dr. Belury says.

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If you do, you can’t eat whatever you want

The message here, the researchers say, is not that you might as well eat whatever you want when you’re stressed. Rather, Belury adds, “it could serve as a reminder to shoot for healthier choices every day so that when stress gets in your way you’re starting in a better place.” Eat foods that are known to reduce inflammation, practice portion control and exercise. This is the best combination for preventing disease. 

How Stress Cancels Out Benefits of Healthy Eating