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How Stress Can Sabotage a Healthy Diet

November 29, 2016

We all know that stress can have a negative impact on our health, but now a new study indicates that high levels of stress even may erase the benefits of eating healthy.

The study, conducted by researchers at the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, involved 58 women who were 53 years old on average. Researchers gave the women two similar breakfasts on two separate days. One group ate biscuits and gravy made with polyunsaturated sunflower oil (considered healthy fat). The other group ate the same breakfast but their meal was prepared with saturated fat, which is linked to a higher risk for heart disease, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Each meal contained 930 calories and 60 grams of fat.

Study participants also completed surveys and a clinical interview to assess their stress levels. Things that triggered stress for the women were common, yet meaningful daily stressors like arranging child care and other work-life balance issues.

The Impact of Stress on a Healthy Diet

Researchers found that women who weren’t stressed when they ate the healthy breakfast had lower inflammatory responses compared to when they ate the high-fat breakfast. However, if they were stressed when they ate the healthy meal, their inflammatory response mimicked what you would expect to see in people who ate a meal high in saturated fat. Therefore, stress essentially canceled out the healthy food choice the women made.


Several studies have shown how stress can negatively impact overall health. Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research and the study’s lead author, has done previous research that indicates stress may slow a person’s metabolism and slow down calorie-burn, leading to weight gain. Stress also can affect insulin levels, which causes the body to absorb more sugar and hold on to more weight.

Researchers say stress affects the way our bodies process food, leads to a greater inflammatory response and increases molecular substances in the body that can lead to plaque buildup in the arteries, which puts you at greater risk for heart disease and blockages that may cause a heart attack.

The study suggests that even people who follow a healthy diet can benefit from controlling their stress. If you’re struggling with this, here are a few helpful ways to de-stress:

  • Meditate: Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation, a practice that involves breathing and calming the mind, can have positive health benefits. In one study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, breast cancer survivors who practiced mindfulness slept better, were more calm, had less physical pain and an overall improved quality of life.
  • Exercise: A hike, yoga, swimming or cardio can increase endorphins, neurotransmitters that boost your mood and reduce pain. Exercise also is a good distraction from whatever is causing you stress.
  • Surround yourself with friends and family: Studies have shown that strong social connections relieve stress, too. It may be because caring behaviors stimulate the release of hormones that reduce stress or because having quality relationships reduces your risk of certain chronic conditions. One study found that women who were in great marriages had a lower risk for heart disease compared to those who weren’t.

Sometimes, it’s hard to prevent stress but that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to manage it. If you’ve made an effort to eat healthy, don’t less stress sabotage all your hard work. If you fall off track one day, don’t stress or become upset about it. When people stress about losing weight and expect perfection in all areas of their diet, it often backfires. Follow the tips I’ve outlined to control daily stressors and improve your overall health — inside and out.