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Stress Can Cancel Out Nutritious Eating

Image by Debbie Digioia
Kudos to all of you who are trying to eat more nutritiously. Unfortunately, according to research, if you’re living a stressful life, you may be cancelling out the benefits of eating healthful foods (“Stress may erase benefits from healthy eating” by Nicholas Bakalar, Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 10/11/16, p. E12). Here’s what a new study tells us.
This small study (involving only 58 women) points to how mood and metabolism can affect us in ways we don’t realize. These women “ate a meal high in saturated fats. Then, one to two weeks later, the women ate a meal low in saturated fats.” The meals were identical in every other way. The only difference in these situations was that “Before each meal, the women completed questionnaires assessing symptoms of depression over the past week and the number of daily stressors in the past 24 hours.”
According to blood samples taken, “Among women who had low levels of stress, markers of inflammation tended to be higher after eating the meal containing high levels of saturated than after the low saturated fat meal. But women who had high levels of stress had high levels of inflammation even after the meal that was low in saturated fat.
Said more simply, even eating low-fat (versus high-fat) food, due to high stress, these women had high inflammation levels. The study’s lead author, Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser, an Ohio State University psychiatry professor, concluded, “The surprise here is that stress made the healthier-fat meal look like the saturated-fat meal. Stress is doing things with the metabolism that we really didn’t know about before.”  
What does this mean for you if you have a great deal of stress in your life: That you might as well eat high-fat foods because low-fat ones aren’t doing you any good? Of course not. The take home message from this small study is that too much stress isn’t good for us and that optimum health means improving stress management.
Consider if your stress is external, internal or both. Internal stress comes from being a perfectionist, overdoing, never feeling good enough, and taking care of others better than you care for yourself. It has to do with personality traits that cause you to put pressure on yourself when you don’t need to—such as a client of mine who got her first B (a B+, mind you) in college and fretted so much that she lost sleep over it. External stress comes from not having control in your environment. An example is when you allow your boss to yell at you or don’t make your children clean up after themselves and end up doing it yourself. Well-being is not just about eating nutritiously. It’s about shaping your life to make it as low stress as possible.