If you are chronically stressed you should avoid fast food. Maybe easier said than done since fast food might be the only meal you have time for. What a conundrum. But new research has found that you have to choose between the two if you want to keep your current waistline (or of course refrain from fast food anyway). So either calm down and relax or make time for the healthy food.
This is the conclusion of a study by scientists at the University of California San Francisco. They were the first to demonstrate that highly stressed people who eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar food are more prone to health risks than low-stress people who eat the same amount of unhealthy food. “A calorie is a calorie” seems to be the wrong assumption as they showed that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress. They suggest that there could be a stress response that works through diet that could be similar to what we see in animals, where fat cells grow faster in response to junk food when the body is chronically stressed. The stress-junk food pathway has been well mapped out with rodents and primates, and this study is the first to suggest the same pathways may be at work in chronically stressed humans.
The study looked at a group of 61 disease-free women; 33 were chronically stressed women caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, and 28 were women with low stress. Over the course of a year, the women reported their consumption of high sugar, high fat foods. The chronically stressed women didn’t report eating more high sugar, high fat foods than the low stressed women. However, they did have higher levels of stress-related biomarkers.
The participants’ waistlines, fat distribution, using ultrasound scans to assess deep abdominal fat deposits, and insulin resistance, one of the core drivers of obesity and diabetes, were followed. And you guessed it: more frequent high-fat, high-sugar consumption significantly predicted a larger waistline, more truncal fat, and more insulin resistance, but only among the group of women exposed to chronic stress.
So diet appears to be a critical variable that can either amplify or protect against the metabolic effects of stress, but the exact details of how much it takes is still to be figured out.
Note that males might not come off scot-free just because the study involved only females. And stress is not the short-term adrenalin rush you get when you are trying to get to the airport in time or give a presentation in front of a large audience. It is living under sustained chronic stress.