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Study by Jan Kiecolt-Glaser and Martha Belury Finds Stress Can Erase the Perks of Choosing 'Good' Fat Sources

A new study by FIC members Dr. Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, professor of psychiatry, and Dr. Martha Belury, professor of human nutrition, suggests all the great benefits that come from eating good fat can be overridden by stress.  

In the study, published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, researchers recruited 58 women, 38 of which were breast cancer survivors. The women visited Ohio State two days a week and ate a high-calorie, high-fat breakfast consisting of biscuits and gravy, eggs, and turkey sausage. There were randomly assigned to eat one higher in less-healthy saturated fat derived from palm oil and one higher in healthier unsaturated fat from a sunflower oil high in oleic acid. The researchers chose to mimic a typical fast-food meal; the biscuits-and-gravy breakfast was almost identical in macros to that of a Big Mac and medium fries or a Burger King Double Whopper with cheese—yielding 930 calories and 60 grams of fat. The women were given 20 minutes to eat.

Participants' blood was drawn multiple times during their visits to analyze two markers of inflammation: C-reactive protein and serum amyloid A. Researchers also evaluated markers, called cell adhesion molecules, thought to predict a greater likelihood of plaque buildup in arteries.

The women were asked about the previous day's experiences to determine if they were stressed. The researchers say minor irritants didn't count as a stressful day; stressors included things like having to clean up paint a child spilled all over the floor and struggling to help a parent with dementia who was resisting help.

At the study's conclusion, un-stressed women who ate a biscuits-and-gravy breakfast made with saturated fat fared worse in blood tests looking for precursors of disease than women who ate an identical breakfast made primarily with monounsaturated sunflower oil. But, when women had a stressful event before the breakfast test, the hardships of the previous day appeared to erase any benefits linked to the healthy fat choice, the researchers say (31 women reported at least one recent stressor at either of the two visits, 21 had experienced stress before both visits, and six reported no significant stressful experiences prior to their visits). 

All four unhealthy markers were higher following the unhealthy saturated fat meal compared to the unsaturated fat meal, even after controlling for blood levels before eating, age difference, abdominal fat, and physical activity—all factors that can skew results. And stress raised levels of all four harmful blood markers in the healthier unsaturated fat meal group.

Researchers knew both diet and stress could alter inflammation in the body and trigger conditions like heart disease, diabetes, and rheumatoid arthritis. But this is the first time the interplay between stress, diet, and inflammatory markers has been measured. Stress makes a marked impact not just on your mental health, but on your all-around well-being, so much so that eating a breakfast with "bad fat" wasn't any better than eating one with "good fat." 

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Source: Men's Fitness