junk food
Diet & Nutrition

Stress and Bad Food Choices

When it comes to food choices, stress counts for a lot, according to researchers from The Ohio State University.

In their study, unstressed women who ate a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast made mostly with saturated fat fared worse in blood tests looking for precursors to disease than those women who ate an identical breakfast made primarily with monounsaturated sunflower oil.

But when women in the study had a stressful event before the breakfast test, the hardships of the previous day appeared to erase any benefits linked to the healthy fat choice.

“It’s more evidence that stress matters,” said Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, lead author of the study and a professor of psychiatry and psychology.

This study is the first to show that stress has the potential to cancel out benefits of choosing healthier fats, said Kiecolt-Glaser, who directs the Institute for Behavioral Medicine at the university’s Wexner Medical Center.

The research appears in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

Going into the study, Kiecolt-Glaser and her collaborators knew that both diet and stress can alter inflammation in the body. That’s important because chronic inflammation is linked to a litany 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.

The researchers did not know which women were eating which meals. They were randomly assigned to one of the two breakfasts, which – in addition to biscuits and gravy – included eggs and turkey sausage. One was high in less-healthy saturated fat from palm oil, the other higher in healthier unsaturated fat from a sunflower oil high in oleic acid.

The women visited Ohio State on two different days and ate either of the two meals. The participants – 38 breast cancer survivors and 20 others – were, on average, 53 years old. (This research stemmed from a parent study looking at high-fat diets and depression in cancer survivors.)

The women were asked about the previous day’s experiences and the researchers used the Daily Inventory of Stressful Events questionnaire to determine if the woman was under stress.

Minor irritants didn’t count as a stressful day. Stressors included 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.

Thirty-one women had at least one recent stressor at one of the two visits; 21 had experienced stress before both visits and six of the women reported no significant stressful experiences prior to their visits.