Have you ever wondered: I eat right, so why am I unhealthy? You’re not alone. Often, the underlying cause of your health problems is stress. You already know that stress is bad for you, but it turns out that stress can also function as an undo button for a healthy diet, counteracting the hard work you put in to maintain good habits.
If you’re not managing your stress well, your health will suffer – despite the organic steamed broccoli on your plate every evening for dinner. So, what’s the science behind stress and a healthy diet? Here are 4 facts you should know to stay healthy.
1. Stress Is Making You Hungrier
It turns out those cravings during stressful life events aren’t all in your head. ‘Stress eating’ is a physiological response that occurs when chronic stress causes your body to release more of the hormone cortisol than usual. Cortisol is proven to increase your appetite and increase motivation, potentially motivating you to eat even more. This explains why emotional eating so quickly becomes an unhealthy cycle during times of chronic stress. The excess cortisol can lead to cravings for sweet, salty, and fried foods that provide temporary pleasure. The more stress in your life, the more likely you are to turn to food for emotional relief.
How do you break this cycle? Once the chronic stress subsides, your cortisol levels return to normal. If you’re combating patterns of emotional eating, there are many ways to regain control. Manage your stress by seeing a therapist, practicing mindful eating, and finding new outlets for stress release like exercise, socializing, and reading.
2. Comfort Foods Really Are Comforting
There’s a reason you don’t crave a kale salad when you’re stressed out. Instead, your mind probably goes straight to comfort foods: pizza, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, cake, ice cream…we could go on. High fat, high sugar foods are more than just delicious – they provide temporary relief from stress.
Studies have shown that these foods can actually block activity in the part of the brain that produces and processes stress and emotions. Researchers believe this could contribute to the relationship between stress and comfort foods. Just remember: the relief these foods provide is temporary, so you’re better off investing your time in self-care and ways to manage your stress.
3. Stress Can Override Healthy Diet Choices
Is it possible for stress to undo the benefits of healthy eating? A recent study from Ohio State University’s Institute of Behavioral Medicine Research says yes. More specifically, the study found that stress – not diet choices – dictated the level of inflammation in the body, which heightens your risk for a range of chronic diseases.
The study, authored by Janice Kiecolt-Glaser and published in Molecular Psychiatry, followed 58 women who were interviewed about their daily stresses and asked to participate in a meal challenge. The women were given two different kinds of meals: some were given a meal high in saturated fats, others were given a healthier option with a plant-based oil. They found that when women were not stressed out and eating the healthier option, their inflammatory response was lower. But when they were stressed out, eating healthier had no effect on their inflammatory response. In fact, from an inflammation standpoint, the stressed-out women looked the same as the women eating the saturated fat meal.
While the power of stress can overwhelm a good diet, it’s still better to eat healthy and exercise, giving you a better chance of overriding the negative effects of stress.
4. Stress Is Tough On Your Digestive System
Stress and the digestive system simply do not get along. The reason is simple: in stressful circumstances, your body goes into “flight or fight” mode, also known as survival mode. In this state, your whole body is affected, including your digestive system. Your digestive system is controlled by the nervous system, which sends signals to slow blood flow so that all of your body’s internal energy can fight the perceived threat.
For you, this reaction results in anything from muscle cramping to constipation to nausea. If you have a sensitive gut already (hello fellow GF folks!), you’re more prone to these unpleasant reactions to stress. The solution? It all comes back to managing your stress, keeping a well-balanced diet, and limiting extra stressors like smoking, excessive drinking, and high sugar intake.
How do you manage your stress and stay healthy? Share your comments for a healthy lifestyle in the comments below!