Stress Undercuts a Healthy Diet
If you focus on eating nutritious foods, you’re off to a good start. What we choose to consume as our source of energy and nutrients makes a big difference in our health. But food is not the only factor involved. Unfortunately, other things can greatly impact our bodies, and one of the major influences is stress. In fact, new research even suggests that stress might make enough of an impact to undo some of the benefits of eating well.
The study, which took place at Ohio State University in Columbus, found that experiencing stress may eliminate some of the advantages of choosing healthy foods for our bodies.1 The subjects were 58 adult women in good health, with an average age of 53. They were invited to the research lab for breakfast on two different days. On both occasions, the participants were provided a meal of biscuits with gravy. These meals appeared identical, and contained the exact same number of calories and fat. They were 930 calories and 60 grams of fat apiece, created to mirror a typical fast food meal such as a Big Mac with a medium order of French fries. The difference between the two breakfasts of biscuits and gravy, however, was that one was loaded with saturated fat (like a fast food burger) and the other instead contained monounsaturated sunflower oil.
During these lab sessions, the volunteers answered a survey that included questions about their previous day’s events and any emotions they evoked. This was important for determining who may have dealt with minor annoyances versus who was truly experiencing stress. After the breakfasts were consumed, blood samples were drawn from the subjects for analysis.
The testing showed that the stress-free women had more positive results after eating the meal made with monounsaturated fat than they did after eating the biscuits and gravy made with saturated fat, based on levels of certain inflammatory markers and cell adhesion molecules. Cell adhesion molecules help cells stick together and communicate, but can also contribute to the formation of plaque on the walls of blood vessels that leads to hardening of the arteries.
In contrast, the participants who had reported going through a stressful event the day before had similar levels of inflammatory markers and cell adhesion molecules whether they had eaten the meal containing monounsaturated fat or the meal containing saturated fat. Virtually any benefits in these areas disappeared for those who were in a stressful period.
One unexpected twist in the findings was that, at least when it comes to fats, stress does not make an already bad situation even worse. That is, when the stressed out volunteers consumed the saturated fat version of the breakfast, their test results were similar to those of the women who ate that same meal but were not experiencing stress.
The experiment was limited by the very small population sample included. Additionally, while we can project that similar results would be discovered in men, the lack of male participants means that this as an assumption at best. The results would be considerably stronger if the investigation was conducted again with a much larger, more diverse group of male and female volunteers.
However, that being said, it is well known that stress affects our bodies in a variety of negative ways, and the findings are in line with earlier research on the topic. A 2015 study at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom showed that saturated fats appear to increase the likelihood of tissue damage and systemic inflammation,2 which is associated with diseases such as diabetes, arthritis, and cardiovascular problems. And stress was shown in a 2013 study at Ohio State University in Columbus to raise the risk of inflammation-related problems in the body as well.3 In fact, however, the health issues surrounding saturated fats are far more nuanced than the medical community and the mainstream media would have you believe.
Ultimately, we should be focusing on the overall value of eating nutritiously. If your diet typically consists of fresh, healthy foods, your body will receive numerous benefits including maintenance of a stable, normal weight and lower disease risk. Having an unhealthy meal every once in a while won’t undo this, just as eating a nutritious meal on occasion if your diet is generally poor will not suddenly make you healthy.
It is important to pay attention to the sources of your fat, choosing plant-based fats over meat- and dairy-based fats and artificial trans fats. But it’s not all as black and white as that. For a more in-depth look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of fats, check out Fats and Oils Made Simple. And of course, fats are not the only thing to consider. It’s essential to avoid too high a caloric intake; make sure the bulk of your food is fresh, natural, and organic; and get a good balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Keep the bigger picture in mind each time you plan your meals.
- 1. Kiecolt-Glaser, JK; et al. "Depression, daily stressors, and inflammatory responses to high-fat meals: when stress overrides healthier food choices." Molecular Psychiatry. 20 September 2016. Accessed 30 September 2016. http://www.nature.com/mp/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/mp2016149a.html.
- 2. Saja, Maha F.; et al. "Triglyceride-Rich Lipoproteins Modulate the Distribution and Extravasation of Ly6C/Gr1 Monocytes." Cell Reports. 22 September 2015. Accessed 1 October 2016. http://www.cell.com/cell-reports/abstract/S2211-1247(15)00891-8?_returnURL=http%3A%2F%2Flinkinghub.elsevier.com%2Fretrieve%2Fpii%2FS2211124715008918%3Fshowall%3Dtrue.
- 3. Powell, ND; et al. "Social stress up-regulates inflammatory gene expression in the leukocyte transcriptome via B-adrenergic induction of myelopoiesis." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 8 October 2013. Accessed 1 October 2016. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24062448.