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Is Stress Sabotaging Your Healthy Diet?

A new study finds that a woman's body responds differently to healthy foods when she's under stress.

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There's some not-so-great news on the healthy eating front, moms. Because if you're like me, making smart meal choices is a huge priority in your life., even as you attempt to navigate the inevitable daily stresses that come along with balancing family, work, and personal responsibilities. The problem is, according to a new study published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, any progress women make in regards to their diets is negated by stress. So...should I go ahead and wolf down these hash browns now?

What researchers at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center found was that when about 60 women chowed down on two different meals—one high in saturated fats, and the other prepared with healthier, high oleic sunflower oil—those who were battling high levels of stress the day before did not benefit from the healthier meal. Specifically, monounsaturated fats in sunflower, olive, or peanut oils simply couldn't stand up to stress.

Explains Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, M.D., principal investigator of the study, and director of Ohio State's Institute for Behavioral Medicine, in a press release, "Stress was actually interacting with the meal they were eating, leading to real changes in their blood after the meal." In fact, researchers found that a stressed-out woman's inflammatory response was basically the same, no matter what meal choices she made.

My hash browns are looking more and more like the right choice at the moment... Because let's face it, stress is to kids what French vanilla creamer is to coffee; you simply can't have one without the other (at least in my opinion). I mean, it's not as if we moms can avoid stress altogether! So we might as well eat all the junk we want, right? But not so fast!

Although Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser tells Parents.com the key takeaway from the study is that stress can change the way your body responds to food, she interprets the data a little differently than I did (which, admittedly, was to use these findings as an excuse to eat more junk food). Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser's advice is to eat healthy regardless, since the benefits will pay off mentally. Turning to high-fat comfort foods will only make us feel guilty, and stress us out more, which perpetuates the stress cycle.

"We often turn to 'comfort food' when we're stressed, which tends to be high-fat and high calorie," she explains. "Having a good stash of healthy snacks available during stressful times can make a difference. We feel better when we know we are taking better care of ourselves." 

In other words, why add the worry that your #dietgoals have hit the skids to other daily stresses? Okay, okay. I guess that's a good point. I'll pass on the hash browns after all.

And realistically, this news should be extra motivation to keep stress levels in check. Especially if you're spending the effort to eat healthy, make sure you're getting the most out of that by taming the stress in your life as much as possible.

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser offers Parents.com this stress-management tip: "Exercise can be an excellent stress reducer, and we know from other research that it can help our body process fats more efficiently."

Bye-bye, golden, delicious hash browns. The treadmill calls!

What's your take on this study?

Melissa Willets is a writer/blogger and a mom. Follow her on Twitter (@Spitupnsuburbs), where she chronicles her love of exercising and drinking coffee, but never simultaneously.