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​Stress Cancels Out Healthy Choices

You eat all the right foods, especially concentrating on choosing “good” fats, rather than unhealthy saturated fats.

But something is wrong: You just don’t seem to be losing weight.

It may have nothing to do with your diet, and everything to do with your stressful life.

That’s the takeaway from a new study from The Ohio State University, which found that the benefits of good fats vanish when we are stressed out — and who isn’t stressed out these days?

The new study is “more evidence that stress matters,” according to  Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and psychology.

One of the volunteers in the study.
One of the volunteers in the study.

For the study, the researchers recruited 38 breast cancer survivors and 20 healthy women, who were, on average, 53 years old. This research was an outgrowth of another study that looked at high-fat diets and depression in cancer survivors.

The women visited the university on two different days and ate either a breakfast that included eggs, turkey sausage and biscuits and gravy that was made primarily with saturated fat from palm oil, or a similar meal that was made with monounsaturated fat from a sunflower oil high in oleic acid.

The researchers intentionally chose a high-calorie, high-fat meal to mimic a typical fast-food meal. Each breakfast contained 930 calories and 60 grams of fat, almost identical to the composition of a Big Mac and medium fries or a Burger King Double Whopper with cheese. The women were given 20 minutes to eat.

The women also were asked about the previous day. Researchers used the Daily Inventory of Stressful Events questionnaire to determine if a woman was under stress.

According to the researchers, minor irritants didn’t count as a stressful day. What did count was having to clean up paint a child spilled all over the floor and struggling to help a parent with dementia who was resisting help.

“They’re not life-shattering events, but they’re not of the hangnail variety either,” Kiecolt-Glaser said.

According to the study’s findings, 31 of the women had at least one recent stressor at one of the two visits; 21 had experienced stress before both visits; and six reported no significant stressful experiences before their visits.

Going into the study, Kiecolt-Glaser and her fellow researchers knew that both diet and stress can alter inflammation in the body. That’s important because chronic inflammation is linked to a variety of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis.

But they wanted to know more about the interplay between stress, diet and inflammatory markers they can measure in the bloodstream.

Martha Belury, left, confers with Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The pair published a study that found stress in women offsets the benefits of eating meals made with less saturated fat. (Photos courtesy The Ohio State University)
Martha Belury, left, confers with Janice Kiecolt-Glaser at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. The pair published a study that found stress in women offsets the benefits of eating meals made with less saturated fat. (Photos courtesy The Ohio State University)

That’s why the women’s blood was drawn several times during their visits. The researchers then looked at two markers of inflammation — C-reactive protein and serum amyloid A. They also evaluated two markers called cell adhesion molecules that 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. The research team noted they controlled for blood levels before the meals, age difference, abdominal fat, and physical activity — all factors that could skew the results.

But when women were stressed and ate the healthier meal with sunflower oil, all four harmful blood markers were raised — effectively wiping out the benefits of eating healthy fats.

Interestingly, stress did not seem to affect the readings of the women who ate the meal with the unhealthy, saturated fat, according to Martha Belury, a co-author of the study and a professor of human nutrition.

Keeping inflammation down is important, according to the researchers, who note that many think reduced inflammation could be the cornerstone of the benefits of eating healthier foods such as the Mediterranean diet, which is high in oleic acid, usually from olive oil.

The researchers add that it’s important to remember that inflammation creeps up over time to contribute to disease. The message here, they said, is not that you might as well eat whatever you want when you’re stressed.

Rather, it could serve as a reminder to shoot for healthier choices on a daily basis so that when stress gets in your way, you’re starting from a better place, Belury said.

​Stress Cancels Out Healthy Choices

Janice Wood

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APA Reference
Wood, J. (2016). ​Stress Cancels Out Healthy Choices. Psych Central. Retrieved on May 21, 2019, from


Last updated: 30 Sep 2016
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