How Stress Can Make Junk Food Even More Harmful
There’s something about stress that causes us to reach for the wrong foods to sooth ourselves. The crunch of crisps or the comfort of macaroni and cheese are commonly used as go-to food options to ease away stress, at least temporarily. And there’s where things get tricky.
Stress can be brutal, especially when it is your constant companion. If this is typical of a day in your life, you’re under serious stress.
The day begins with an alarm that immediately triggers an elevated heart rate, followed by a fumbling attempt to stop the noise, race to the kitchen for coffee and maybe head to the shower, coffee cup still in hand.
Once dressed and in the car, you find yourself juggling breakfast, traffic and last-minute notes, along with the street lights that seem to turn red as soon as your car approaches.
Your day is spent in meetings, fielding phone calls and rushing to make deadlines, and if you’re lucky you’re able to grab lunch, maybe from a vending machine. After a frenzied, frazzled work day, your commute home includes picking one kid up from day care, another from after-school sports practice as well as a stop at the grocery store for something to make for dinner, which you immediately begin as soon as you drop your bag and take off your shoes.
The physiology of stress
Throughout the day, the constant stress on your body leads to elevated levels of cortisol and adrenaline – our fight or flight hormones. During our caveman days, they encouraged the production of excess blood glucose to give us the energy we needed to escape from whatever danger we faced. While we could use that surge of hormones and the response they trigger to escape from the villain in a horror movie, we are statistically unlikely to ever find ourselves up against the likes of Freddy Krueger of Norman Bates. (Ref. 1)
In actuality, that constant stress is the real danger. For many people it never levels off, and instead causes a steady flow of elevated blood glucose that increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Stress also causes our heart rate and blood pressure to go up, while other systems such as digestion and our immune system slow down, since everything else is using up our body’s energy reserves.
That’s one of the reasons why chronic stress can lead to illnesses, digestive woes, high blood pressure, headaches and trouble sleeping.
Could it get any worse? Unfortunately, yes.
Stress and food choices
There’s something about stress that causes us to reach for the wrong foods to sooth ourselves.
The crunch of crisps or the comfort of macaroni and cheese are commonly used as go-to food options to ease away stress, at least temporarily. And there’s where things get tricky.
Stress already leads to elevated blood glucose levels that put you at increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Junk foods such as chips only exacerbate the problem.
According to a study from the University of California at San Francisco’s Department of Psychiatry led by psychiatry professor Kristin Aschbacher, Ph.D., women exposed to higher stress who ate high-fat, high-sugar foods were more likely to have a thicker waistline, more abdominal fat (the most dangerous kind), more damage from oxidation and predication toward insulin resistance, a precursor to type 2 diabetes. (Ref. 2)
Women without stress, however, did not show the same physical results, even when they ate the same foods.
Stress, it seems, magnified the negative effects of the junk foods, creating a double whammy for stressed-out women everywhere.
“Many people think a calorie is a calorie, but this study suggests that two women who eat the same thing could have different metabolic responses based on their level of stress,” said Aschbacher, lead author of the study, which appeared in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology. “There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet – for example, it 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.”
Researchers found that while both groups of women ate the same high-fat, high-calorie food, the stressed women had higher levels of the stress-related biomarker peripheral neuropeptide Y (NPY).
NPY is also released during times of stress, and according to both animal and human studies, stimulates fat growth, exacerbated the effects of a high-fat diet.
“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 a stress-related biomarker, peripheral Neuropeptide Y (NPY),” researchers said.
So what’s a stressed-out woman who can’t keep her hands out of the cookie jar to do?
Easing away stress
Clearly, either easing stress levels or finding smarter substitutes for high-fat foods is a must to counteract the physical effects of stress combined with junk food cravings.
Making smarter food choices over time can squash the cravings for foods with little nutritional value, and in the meantime, stop stress in its tracks by carving out time for some stress reduction activities.
Exercise eases stress not only in the moment but also in the hours after a workout.(Ref. 3)
Meditation can help you find a sense of inner peace that can bring serenity all day long.
Yoga is known for promoting a sense of calm through specifically targeted poses.
Sleeping well will help prevent feelings of being on edge, making stressful moments easier to handle.
Make healthy food choices – raspberries, asparagus, avocados, blueberries, cashews and oranges are smart options, according to Prevention magazine - to fuel your body so you are physically able to fight stress. (Ref. 4)
How do you handle stress? Let us know your favorite stress reduction remedy, whether it’s a regular afternoon tea or a trip to the gym to work up a hard-core sweat.
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