Stress and High-Fat Food May Create Metabolism Drag

Metabolism slowed by stress and high fat food in study of women and daily life stressors

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D Beth Bolt, RPh

(RxWiki News) A bad day may drive some to overindulge in ice cream or greasy food, but could it actually be slowing down the metabolism as well? Maybe so, suggest the authors of a new study.

The study involved female participants who were monitored before and after consuming a high-fat meal.

The study found that women who had greater amounts of stressful events in the day prior to eating a high-fat meal had signs of a slower metabolism than women who did not experience recent stressors.

"When feeling stressed, try to give yourself a minute to breath deeply."

According to the authors of this new study, which was led by Jan Kiecolt-Glaser, PhD, of the Institute for Behavioral Medicine Research at The Ohio State University College of Medicine in Columbus, mental health issues and obesity have been linked in previous studies, and the researchers wanted to explore how stress may affect metabolism.

To do so, they looked at a sample of 58 healthy women, 38 of whom were breast cancer survivors and 20 of whom had no breast cancer history. The women had an average age of 53.1 years.

The women were given two different high fat meals a few weeks apart—one of which was high in saturated fat, one of which was high in oleic sunflower oil. The meals were both 930 calories and had 60 grams of fat, 59 grams of carbohydrates and 36 grams of protein. The day before, the participants were all given three standardized meals and asked not to drink alcohol or exercise strenuously.

A number of factors related to metabolism were measured, including levels of hormones like insulin and cortisol, both before and after the meals. The researchers also used measures of carbon dioxide and oxygen breathed by the women to get a picture of their metabolism and calories burned.

Stressors that the women experienced in the day prior to the meal were also measured, using a survey called the Daily Inventory of Stressful Events. The stressors measured could include problems at work, conflicts in relationships, stresses tied to their children or financial issues, among others.

Of the participants, 31 reported having at least one stressor the day before one of the meals, 21 reported recent stressors before both meals and six of the women reported no stressors in the day prior to either meal.

Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser and team found that women who reported a greater number of stressors had lower amounts of energy expenditure post-meal—for example, they had a slowed metabolism. This was seen in measures like higher insulin levels and lower rates of fat oxidation, or how the body processes fat.

"The cumulative difference between one recent stressor and no stressors over 6 hours translates into 104 [calories], averaged across meal type and group and all controlling variables," wrote Dr. Kiecolt-Glaser and team. "This difference would add up to almost 11 pounds across a year."

In an interview with dailyRx News, Eve Pearson, MBA, wellness expert and registered dietitian, explained that although stress seems to affect metabolism, certain methods can help maintain a healthy diet and metabolism, even during times of stress.

"The results of this study reinforce many of the recommendations registered dietitians give their clients/patients regarding weight loss and weight maintenance," Pearson said. "Clearly this study confirms, when living through a stressful situation or part of life, hormones and other regulators are compromised."

Pearson suggested steps like only focusing on the meal at hand when eating and consciously enjoying every bite.

"Put your fork down in between bites as well as drink in between bites to slow the rate of consumption," she said.

Pearson also suggested focusing on nutrient-dense meals to make sure you are satisfied.

"Before eating, check in with yourself whether you're eating because you're really hungry," she said. "If you're not sure, distract yourself with a replacement behavior (e.g., working on a puzzle or playing with an app on your smart phone) to see if the urge to eat goes away."

This study involved a fairly small group of women, and further research among more diverse participants is needed to confirm these findings.

The study was published July 14 in Biological Psychiatry. Some funding for the study was provided by the National Institutes of Health. No conflicts of interest were reported.

Review Date: 
July 11, 2014
Last Updated:
July 16, 2014