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Stress May Erase the Benefits of Healthful Eating

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A recent study indicates that healthy eating gives you no benefit if you're stressed. Here's why that's an important reminder to reduce stress when you can—and also not worry too much about what this one study has to say.

A new study in Molecular Psychiatry concludes stress overrides the benefits of healthier food choices. Does that mean we should give up healthful eating? To understand the study and the results, it's first important to know a little bit about how stress is measured.

Inflammation occurs when the body attempts to protect itself, or alert the rest of the body about a problem such as a cut on the skin or bronchitis. This type of inflammation, the kind that escalates and then subsides when the cause is removed, is called acute inflammation. When the inflammatory response persists due to a prolonged infection or an autoimmune response, this is called chronic inflammation.

Chronic inflammation is associated with conditions like arthritis and heart disease, so it has been studied heavily to determine all potential causes. Factors such as diet and stress are thought to affect the body’s inflammatory response.

The study, published last month, determined that stress overrides the benefits of healthier food choices. For this research, women were interviewed to determine the number of stressful events that they experienced. They were given a meal with a high ratio of saturated fat to monounsaturated fat or a meal with a lower ratio of saturated fat to unsaturated fat. After eating, each woman’s immune response was assessed by measuring her blood levels of four different response molecules.

The results concluded that if a woman did not experience stress, she had a higher inflammatory response to a meal high in saturated fat compared to a meal high in unsaturated fat. This was expected. We know that certain fats have shown to increase inflammation.

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However, the addition of stress caused a shift in response. Stress the day before the test caused an increased inflammatory response after eating a meal higher in unsaturated fat (what is considered the “good” fat), and when a woman was stressed and also ate a meal high in saturated fat (what is considered the “bad” fat) the response to a high saturated fat meal remained consistent. In other words, if you're stressed, your body responds to food the same, whether it's good or bad.

These results seem to negate the point of eating right while experiencing stress. After all, this study seems to indicate that stress made inflammation worse when a healthful food choice was made and did not make a difference when a poor food choice was made. However, it is important to consider a few things after reading this study.

The Takeaway: The researchers are not sure why the addition of stress to a high saturated fat meal did not cause a further increase in inflammatory response, while changes were seen after a meal high in unsaturated fat. It could be that these women reached an inflammatory threshold after eating the unhealthier option. Also, the meals given to the women, though one was higher in saturated fat an the other higher in unsaturated fat, were created to mimic fast-food meals. They were low in fiber and contained refined flour. A more balanced meal might have shown different results.

What You Can Do: It seems that stress is definitely a negative factor in terms of inflammation, and subsequently overall health. However, it is important to recognize overall health has multiple components. Assess your situation, and alleviate stress that is within your control. Use methods such as breathing exercises, meditation, or planned personal time to help deal with the stress that you cannot control.

We have long held that diet affects livelihood, but we are now trying to determine specific relationships. Rather than reading one study that singles out one component of diet and giving up hope, attempt balance. Eat a variety of foods in their real, whole form so that you get the maximum benefits from your meal. For example, apple juice contains vitamins but a large amount of sugar, while a whole apple has the fiber to keep you more full and is less concentrated in sugar. Nutrients are best used in your body together.