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(Healthy) Mind over matter: How stress can affect your diet

A healthy lifestyle is a common goal that many people have in Western society. Any list centred around the concept of creating a new ‘healthy you’ usually has a healthy diet as one of its primary goals.

Despite its popularity, a healthy diet is a goal that many have a hard time consistently following. Part of the struggle for the consistency is due to healthy eating being used interchangeably with weight loss, despite the outcomes for both being distinct and different. Healthy eating outcomes are usually centred around consuming the proper nutritional content needed to help with energy levels, mental health, and overall maintenance of the physical body as it ages.

The goal of weight loss, on the other hand, is to create a calorie deficit in order to reach a goal weight. The type of food and activities done to reach this goal does not matter. This was highlighted in the famous Twinkie Diet experiment conducted in 2010 by a nutrition professor. The professor limited his calorie intake to under 1800 calories a day where two thirds of his diet was packaged sweets. One third of the diet contained canned vegetables or celery stalks. Not only did this professor lose close to 2 stone in two months—his good cholesterol levels improved.

Of course, this experiment would not necessarily work on people who have existing medical conditions. However, this study highlights that eating healthy foods does not automatically cause weight loss. In the same vein, weight loss is not automatically due to a healthy diet or lifestyle. Despite the large range of studies supporting this conclusion; health magazines, personal trainers, nutritionists, and even GP’s fall into the trap of reducing healthy diets and weight loss into a food and exercise list.

With these lists being reinforced by everyone around us, we unintentionally begin to create a division in our minds where certain foods and activities are ‘healthy’ and other foods and activities are not. When we feel we are not following these lists, many of us begin to feel guilty about our lifestyles.

Feeling guilty leads to feelings of shame and failure. Shame and failure leads to apathy towards living a healthier lifestyle. Apathy leads to not paying attention to what we eat or how we move which contributes to a surplus of calories. The surplus of calories lead to weight gain. Weight gain leads to more guilt. Guilt leads to stress. Stress for many leads to fatigue and comfort eating. And thus, a cycle is created.

This cycle may seem simple enough to break with concentration, planning, and will power. However, guilt and stress play more of a roll in our nutrition then we realise.

A study released in September 2016 monitored the stress levels and diets of 58 women. In the study, the women were given two types of high fat meals on a number of different occasions. One meal would have a high content of saturated fat (bad fat) while the other meal would have a high content of  poly and monounsaturated fats (good fat). It was found that if stress was present before the poly and monounsaturated fat meal, the body responded as if it were taking in saturated fat. Thus the benefits of consuming the healthier fat was lost due to the stress.

This shows that even if we followed a healthy diet at a calorie deficit, our mental state can effect how our bodies take in nutrition.

Of course, a consistent healthy diet combined with 30 minutes of exercise a day can help us cope with some of the stressors we encounter. However if these lifestyle changes are the causes of our stress, then they could be doing less for us then we realise.

We must put more emphasis on our mental health if we want to reach our healthy lifestyle goals. When we focus on eliminating guilt and stress from our minds, we create balanced bodies that are ready to take in the good nutrition we give it to fuel our exercise activities.

After all, a happy body is hard to attain without actively working on creating a happy mind.

Tags: diet, Health, healthy living, Lifestyle, stress, study

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