Avoiding what winds you up is just as important as cutting back on unhealthy foods. By Jennifer Bowden.
Show of hands: who began 2021 aiming to eat better than they did in 2020? In theory, it shouldn't be too hard given how 2020 turned out.
Indeed, the Covid Kai Survey, in which the eating behaviour of more than 3000 people was analysed during the seven weeks of lockdown from March to May, confirmed what we already knew: New Zealanders consumed more sweet and salty snacks, more white bread and pasta and more sugary drinks. Stress, it turns out, flips our well-intentioned eating habits upside down, which in turn causes more stress.
So, what are we supposed to do?
Stress, whether faced at home, at work or when living through a global pandemic, has a significant effect on our body's functioning. Stress causes headaches, muscle tension, chest pain, fatigue, altered sex drive, stomach upsets, digestive issues and sleep problems.
It can also cause anxiety, restlessness, irritability, anger, sadness, depression or a lack of motivation or focus. Stress also spills over into such negative behaviour as over- or undereating, angry outbursts, drug or alcohol abuse, tobacco use or social withdrawal.
And it influences what we eat. People under stress are more likely to eat high-fat and high-sugar foods. A recent study in Finland found that adults with type 1 diabetes were less likely to stick to dietary recommendations for managing their health when they had higher perceived levels of stress.
What's more, researchers have recently discovered that stress can cancel out the benefits of healthier foods. In clinical trials, it has been shown that stress affects our biological response to a meal containing healthy fats. The researchers found the inflammatory response to eating a healthy meal in a stressed state is equivalent to the levels of inflammation produced when we eat an unhealthy, saturated-fat-laden meal.
That doesn't mean eating a variety of healthy, nutritious foods is pointless. Instead, it highlights the importance of dealing with stress. Moreover, it shows how unhelpful it is to worry about how well we are eating, too – that's just another form of stress that will worsen the situation.
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Depression, stress and diet all modify inflammation levels in the body. For a healthy person, inflammation is a helpful and normal response to specific triggers. However, chronic inflammation may increase the risk of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions.
Many Western diets are high in palmitic acid, a saturated fatty acid found in meat and dairy products. Saturated fatty acids trigger pro-inflammatory signalling pathways, including those that increase the production of adhesion molecules that are implicated in the development of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
In contrast, a Mediterranean-style diet may reduce the risk of depression, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and mortality. The reduced inflammation associated with this diet may be the foundation of its benefits.
The primary fat source in the Mediterranean diet is olive oil, which is rich in monounsaturated oleic acids that have anti-inflammatory properties.
So, yes, it would be beneficial if we could eat more nutritious foods and cut down on the high-fat and high-sugar snacks that became mainstays in 2020. However, rather than dwelling entirely on trying to control our food habits directly, a more appropriate response is to focus equally on dealing with stress.
Relaxation techniques such as meditation, mindfulness, tai chi and yoga, and walking or a relaxing sporting activity, are good de-stressors. Regular sleep habits, along with maintaining friendships and social activities, are also essential.
Mental health is critical to our overall well-being, potentially affecting how the body responds to food and influencing what food we choose to eat. By giving equal importance to healthy eating and stress reduction, we can substantially affect our health, and hopefully counteract stressful episodes when matters outside our control can get the better of us.