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Stress Deepens Junky Diets’ Damage
Highly stressed women eating junky diets had more metabolic problems than low-stress peers
5/22/2014By Craig Weatherby
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Image Feeling seriously stressed out?

If so, new clinical study suggests that – even more than most people – you should avoid excess sugar, starch, and fat. 

The study looked at markers for metabolic syndrome or MetS, which is linked to a rise in the risk of heart disease, stroke, and diabetes.

Its results indicate that stressed-out women may benefit more than most from switching from a standard American diet to a Paleo-style whole foods diet.

Paleo diets differ from the standard American diet in several key ways:
  • More protein
  • Fewer refined carbs
  • Fewer processed/packaged foods
  • Fewer sweet or starchy vegetables (potatoes, yams, sweet potatoes)
  • More colorful, fibrous fruits (berries, cherries, apples, prunes, raw cocoa)
  • More colorful, fibrous vegetables (leafy greens, broccoli, onions, and peppers)
  • Far less omega-6 fat from cheap vegetable oils (soy, corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed)
Refined carbs include sugary foods (candies, pastries, sodas, juices) and white-flour products (white pasta, baked goods, bread, and breading)

Evidence published over the past decade shows that omega-3s from fish and antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies help deter metabolic problems, while key characteristics of the standard American diet make matters worse.

Metabolic syndrome is defined as having three or more of these six abnormal signs:
  1. High blood pressure.
  2. Blood that’s abnormally prone to clotting.
  3. Central obesity (excessive fat in and around the abdomen).
  4. Chronic inflammation (e.g., elevated C-reactive protein in the blood).
  5. Unhealthful blood-fat profile (high blood triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol, and high LDL cholesterol).
  6. Insulin resistance (glucose intolerance or pre-diabetes), in which the body can’t properly use insulin or blood sugar
Now, a clinical study is the first to find that highly stressed people (women) who eat a lot of high-fat, high-sugar food are more prone to MetS than low-stress peers who eat a similar diet.

California study sees stress adding to the impact of poor diets
The new study comes from the University of California San Francisco, where a team led by Kirstin Aschbacher, Ph.D., recruited 61 disease-free women.

“Chronic stress can play an important role in influencing biology, and it's critical to understand the exact pathways through which it works,” said Aschbacher.

The volunteers included 33 women who were chronically stressed from caring for a spouse or parent with dementia, and 28 with low stress levels (Aschbacher K et al. 2014).

Over the course of a year, the women reported on their consumption of high-sugar, high-fat foods.

At the outset, the researchers examined the women for key metabolic problems:
  • Waistline size
  • Stress hormones
  • Oxidative damage to blood fats
  • Insulin resistance (a key driver of obesity and diabetes)
  • Body fat distribution, including deep abdominal fat deposits
  • Oxidative damage to cellular RNA, which predicts faster aging and higher rates of death from diabetes
As Dr. Aschbacher said, “We found that more frequent high fat, high sugar consumption significantly predicted a larger waistline, more truncal [abdominal] fat, higher oxidative damage, and more insulin resistance, but only among the group of women exposed to chronic stress.” 

“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),” she added. 

Animal studies show that stress triggers release of peripheral NPY which, in combination with junk food, creates larger abdominal fat cells, which are more prone to metabolic dysfunctions.

Professor Aschbacher made an important point: “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. There appears to be a stress pathway that works through diet.”

“The medical community is starting to appreciate how important chronic stress is in promoting and worsening early disease processes,” said Aschbacher.

“But there are no guidelines for ‘treating’ chronic stress. We need treatment studies to understand whether increasing stress resilience could reduce the metabolic syndrome, obesity or diabetes.”

  • Aschbacher K, O'Donovan A, Wolkowitz OM, Dhabhar FS, Su Y, Epel E. Good stress, bad stress and oxidative stress: insights from anticipatory cortisol reactivity. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2013 Sep;38(9):1698-708. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.02.004. Epub 2013 Mar 13.
  • Aschbacher K et al. Chronic Stress Increases Vulnerability to Diet-Related Abdominal Fat, Oxidative Stress, and Metabolic Risk. Accessed at
  • UC San Francisco (UCSF). Chronic stress heightens vulnerability to diet-related metabolic risk. April 2014. Accessed at
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