Stressed Out? New Research Says Step Away From the Comfort Foods

Source: iStock

Source: iStock

Thinking about loading a plate high with macaroni and cheese, or your favorite “comfort food” after a long day at work? You might want to think again – especially if you’re a woman who just had a particularly stressful day.

A new study, published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, found that women who reported stress during the 24 hours leading up to the meal burned on average 104 fewer calories than their non-stressed counterparts. This difference could lead to up to 11 pounds of weight gained in a single year. A history of depression was also associated with altered metabolic responses, which could lead to stress-related weight gain.

For the study, 58 women were evaluated at Ohio State’s Clinical Research Center, and the average age of the group was 53 years old. Stress was measured twice using The Daily Inventory of Stressful Events; 31 women reported a recent stressful occurrence at one of the visits, 21 at both. Only 6 women said they had not experienced any stress during the time period. Each woman was given a meal of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits, and gravy that nutritionally is akin to a Big Mac cheeseburger and medium serving of french fries from McDonald’s, or a Burger King Double Whopper with cheese.

Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry and psychology at Ohio State and lead author of the study, described the meal in a press release as “not an extraordinary meal compared to what many of us would grab when we’re in a hurry and out getting some food.” There was one difference the researchers wanted to examine, which they could control by creating a slight variation.

For one group, the meal had a high saturated fat content; the other group’s food had sunflower oil instead. After eating the meals, metabolic data was collected. From this information, the researchers were able to determine there was an association between stress and lower fat oxidation as well as higher insulin levels. “People with lower fat oxidation are more likely to gain weight by storing fat than those with higher fat oxidation, and thus their risk for obesity is increased,” the study explains. 

“We suspected that the saturated fat would have a worse impact on metabolism in women, but in our findings, both high-fat meals consistently showed the same results in terms of how stressors could affect their energy expenditure,” stated Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition in the College of Education and Human Ecology at Ohio State and a co-author of the study.

Not everyone agrees with the implications of the study. “The relationship between stress and eating is really complex both from a biological view as well as from a psychosocial view, and there is no nice clear pathway that explains everything that is happening,” Dr. Leslie Heinberg, Director of Behavioral Services for the Bariatric and Metabolic Institute of the Cleveland Clinic, told Today. “This was a very controlled, one-time thing, and I do think the 11 pounds a year goes beyond the data.” Noting that by including breast cancer survivors, and using self-reported data, the “stress” levels may not be representative of what the population at large experiences. Heinberg did state that the study opens “other potential pathways” when trying to understand the relationship between stress and eating.

Emotional eating, which includes stress-induced selections, has long been considered a diet pitfall. The occasional indulgence isn’t likely to cause too many problems, but the Mayo Clinic says this behavior can become habitual, as we continually try to comfort ourselves using high-calorie, fatty foods. Instead of turning to food because of stress, it suggests partaking in a relaxation technique, such as yoga. We can’t avoid food all day just because we are stressed though, and Belury had a way to combat the high-fat meals when we’re feeling the pressure.

“We know we can’t always avoid stressors in our life, but one thing we can do to prepare for that is to have healthy food choices in our refrigerators and cabinets so that when those stressors come up, we can reach for something healthy rather than going to a very convenient but high-fat choice.”

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