Stress makes your heart look like a fast food junkie’s, no matter how healthily you eat

This is what your heart looks like on stress.
This is what your heart looks like on stress.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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As conventional wisdom has it, healthy eating makes for a vigorous body, and a longer life. But it won’t override the toll on your body from living with high stress.

A new study found that the benefits of eating healthily can be overruled by everyday stress and longer-term depression. Over a lifetime, stress-related medical conditions can cause inflammation in the metabolic process that’s linked to cardiovascular disease.

The research, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry by psychiatric researchers at the Ohio State University, looked at the interaction between stress and diet in 58 women (38 of which were cancer survivors) by giving them surveys that documented and categorized the types of stress they were experiencing. The surveys took into account things such as stress from marital issues, childcare stresses, and prior depression.

The women were also given two types of meals to eat on different days: One meal—a plate of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits and gravy—was high in saturated fat (which has been linked to heart disease), while the other used more healthful plant-based oils.

Both meals included 60 grams of fat total, an amount typical for fast food meals. (A Burger King Double Whopper cheeseburger, for instance, has 64 grams of fat; a McDonald’s Big Mac and medium french fries contains 58 grams of fat.)

According to the study’s author, Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, director of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at the Ohio State University, women who reported more stress exhibited inflammation that’s commonly linked to eating saturated fats—even when they were consuming more healthful meals. Inflammation was measured by tracking multiple metabolic reactions in the body, including the presence of C-reactive protein, a substance produced by the liver.

“If a woman was stressed on a day when she got the healthy meal, she looked like she was eating the saturated fat meal in terms of her [inflammation] responses,” Kiecolt-Glaser told NPR. ”The stress seemed to boost inflammation.”

Higher stress didn’t exacerbate the inflammation levels of those who ate the less healthful meal, however. In the study, Kiecolt-Glaser suggested that might be because inflammation had already reached its “ceiling level” for high saturated fat intake.

Higher inflammation levels come with a bevy of long-term health risks, including heart disease, hypertension, and Type 2 Diabetes.

There are merits to healthy eating, of course, but less so if every last one of them is wolfed down on the go.