Does Stress Undo the Health Benefits of a Good Diet?

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Healthy eating alone isn't enough to protect your health. New research shows that stress can undo the benefits of that kale salad.

Healthy eating alone isn’t enough to protect your health. New research shows that stress can undo the benefits of that kale salad.

Healthy eating alone isn't enough to protect your health. New research shows that stress can undo the benefits of that kale salad.

It’s no secret that stress is a killer: it is linked to a variety of so-called lifestyle diseases– like diabetes, obesity, and even mental health concerns. Anyone who has dealt with chronic stress – or even a stressful day at home or work– knows it can basically sucks the life out of you, which is why it’s known as ‘the silent killer.’

The effects of daily stress are probably not news to most of us, but new research shows that it can affect how we respond to our food, which is totally groundbreaking.

This research, reported on NPR’s The Salt, shows that when study participants ate a healthy meal with low stress levels, their inflammatory response was lower than when they had a meal high in saturated fat. These results were as the researchers expected, as healthier foods lead to less inflammation overall.

But the study also shows that when the women were reported to be stressed (from daily stressors, such as child care, caregiving, or feeling overwhelmed), both the healthy meal AND the higher saturated fat meal showed similar inflammatory response.

The takeaway is that even if we’re making good choices about our food, daily and chronic stress might be sabotaging our healthy choices.


Why Inflammation is Something to Watch

Inflammation is a precursor to many illnesses, and is used as a marker of – and indicator for – common health issues.

Acute inflammation is generally considered a good thing: it helps indicate a problem, like a sore throat or sprained ankle. The pain lets you know that your body needs to rest and rehabilitate. But sometimes an overactive immune system can create what Dr. Mark Hyman calls “hidden inflammation.”

“Many of us are familiar with an overactive immune response and too much inflammation,” says Dr. Hyman. “It results in common conditions like allergies, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune disease, and asthma. This is bad inflammation, and if it is left unchecked it can become downright ugly.”

This chronic condition is linked to many lifestyle diseases.  “Ultimately, chronic inflammation is a failure of the body’s immune system to maintain a healthy homeostatic state,” writes Mary France, MS, in Today’s Dietician. So it goes that reducing our inflammation– especially when it comes to the food we’re eating– is a great way to improve our health.

A whole-foods, plant-based diet filled with veggies, fruits, legumes and whole grains is a great way to reduce inflammatory response. Plant foods are almost all naturally anti-inflammatory. Some, like cherries, nuts, and mushrooms are stronger than others, according to Dr. Greger of

Related: Nutrition Tips to Combat Stress

How to Reduce Stress Before Meals

So how can we reduce stress in our lives to improve our response to the foods we eat? For anyone feeling the weight of anxiety of chronic stress, there’s nothing more enraging than someone telling you to calm down. “Calm down” isn’t helpful on its own, but there are some specific, proactive ways to reduce your stress levels, which, as the research shows, can reduce your overall inflammation response.

Use these tips to help lower your stress levels before a meal to help improve your digestive response.

1. Stop Reading the News and Facebooking during meals. 

I’m totally guilty of this. I always sit down to lunch at my office and read my newsfeed and the daily news. But it’s not good for us! Another NPR article notes that watching or listening to traumatic news can have as negative effect on us as if we experienced it ourselves.

Similarly, scrolling through social media can lead to feeling stressed, even if it seems like it makes you feel happy.

2. Practice Mindful Eating

Mindful eating is simply a way to bring mindfulness– or a feeling of being present and grounded in the moment– to your mealtimes. Even Harvard has gotten behind the benefits of mindful eating: “[Mindful eating is] based on the Buddhist concept of mindfulness, which involves being fully aware of what is happening within and around you at the moment.

In other areas, mindfulness techniques have been proposed as a way to relieve stress and alleviate problems like high blood pressure and chronic gastrointestinal difficulties.” Here are some tips for eating mindfully.

3. Find General Ways to Relax

Yoga and meditation are the obvious answers here; meditation is linked to better sleep, less stress and even being smarter and happier, so that’s a good place to start. Here are six healthy habits to reduce anxiety in your daily life. Reducing stress levels overall can help reduce the stress you feel at mealtimes.

4. Choose Foods that Help you Relax

Many herbal teas and some supplements are linked with lower stress response, and here are six foods that help reduce stress response in your body.

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